Jun 1, 2022 - Sports

Russian NHL stars enter spotlight as war rages in Ukraine

 Illustration of a hockey puck on ice with the Russian flag.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Russian hockey stars will take center stage tonight at Madison Square Garden, a reality starkly at odds with much of the sports world.

State of play: While other leagues and organizations have banned Russian teams and athletes in response to the war in Ukraine, the NHL has taken a different approach.

  • The league condemned the war, suspended business operations in Russia and stopped posting to Russian language social sites. But it never considered banning its 56 Russian players (~5% of the league).
  • Alex Ovechkin, a longtime supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, made headlines all year as he chased Wayne Gretzky's scoring record, and Russians had accounted for 9% of all playoff goals through Sunday.
  • Tonight's Russian stars: Stud goalies Igor Shesterkin (NYR) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (TB) will play key roles in Game 1 of the East Finals, as will wingers Artemi Panarin (NYR) and Nikita Kucherov (TB).

The big picture: While Russians in the NHL play on, their countrymen and women in other sports have been banned from competitions. Events have also been moved in an attempt to hurt Russia economically.

  • Team bans: The first domino to fall was the IOC, which responded to threats of Paralympic boycotts and violence by banning Russia and Belarus. FIFA, UEFA and the IIHF (hockey) then took similar action.
  • Individual bans: The most controversial bans are those targeting individuals, like the Boston Marathon and Wimbledon.
  • Events moved: Numerous events were stripped from Russian hosts, including the Champions League Final and F1's Russian Grand Prix.

What they're saying: "The Russian players are in an impossible situation," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told AP. "We celebrate every player's accomplishments because they're performing in the NHL for their NHL team for NHL fans."

  • Some experts support the NHL's approach, arguing that a ban would have not only been ineffective, but could have backfired.
  • "Preventing Russian athletes from performing isn't going to change [Putin's] policy in Ukraine," international affairs expert Matthew Schmidt told SI. "It's going to make him angry."

The other side: Brendan Dwyer, a faculty member at VCU's Center for Sport Leadership, says banning Russian hockey players would be a blow to the Kremlin.

  • "Putin puts these athletes on a pedestal more than soccer, more than tennis," Dwyer told AP.
  • "Sports are [important] for this regime ... as a way to show power internationally and hockey more so than any other sport."
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