Mar 2, 2022 - Sports

Alex Ovechkin in spotlight over Vladimir Putin friendship

Photo illustration of Alex Ovechkin and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire, Sergei Guneyev/Sputnik via Getty Images

NHL star Alex Ovechkin, a longtime supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has an opportunity to become as impactful off the ice as he is on it.

Driving the news: Ovechkin's comments on Friday regarding Russia's invasion of Ukraine felt purposefully non-committal.

  • "Please, no more war," he said, while also calling Putin "my president" and adding that "it's a hard situation right now for both sides."
  • "I am not in politics," said the Capitals superstar, while sitting six miles from the White House. Problem is, that's not entirely true.

The backdrop: Friendship doesn't necessarily equal endorsement, but Putin and Ovechkin have become friendly enough over the years that the line has more than blurred.

  • Ovechkin campaigned for Putin's re-election in 2017, starting a "social movement" called Putin Team to rally more supporters.
  • Earlier that year, Putin sent him a wedding gift and personally called to congratulate him and his wife on their marriage.

Consider this: The NHL has suspended relationships with Russian business partners in response to the invasion, while Ovechkin — one of its biggest stars — poses with Putin in his Instagram profile picture.

The big picture: "[The war is] not something I can control. It's not in my hands," Ovechkin said Friday. He's right, of course, but he still has more influence than most.

  • Putin loves hockey, and Ovechkin is the best player Russia has ever produced. He's also the most famous Russian athlete in the world, and one of the most recognizable Russians, period. His words have power.
  • Fear of retribution for speaking out would be warranted, especially since he has family in Russia. But "given his position as a hero of the Russian people, it would be hard for Putin to retaliate," hockey columnist Jack Todd told The Guardian.

Zoom out: The NHL is 5% Russian, by far the most among North America's major leagues. Ovechkin is the face of that contingent, but hardly the only one impacted by the current state of affairs.

The bottom line: Ovechkin has spent his career beloved in Washington, D.C., and revered in Russia. He's currently walking a tightrope so as not to rock the boat either way. Will he change course?

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