Alex Shprintsen and Terence McKenna
Feb 19, 2023
As Alex Ovechkin closes in on the NHL’s all-time scoring record, there are questions about his support of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Ukraine. CBC’s Terence McKenna examines the relationship, as well as why some say the Washington Capitals captain should be banned from the NHL. Alex Ovechkin is one of the greatest players in NHL history. He’s second only to Wayne Gretzky for individual goals scored, and may one day beat the Great One in that most important record.
But there is a problem: his unabashed support for Vladimir Putin, Russia’s autocratic leader whose brutal and bloody war in Ukraine has been condemned by global leaders.
Not only has Ovechkin never criticized the Russian government for the invasion, but for years he has kept a photo of himself with Putin as the profile picture on his Instagram account.
While many Russian athletes have been barred from international competition since the war began, that hasn’t happened in the NHL.
Now, some are questioning why Ovechkin hasn’t faced discipline or suspension, despite being Putin’s champion.
As soon as Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, the Washington Capitals knew they had an issue.
The next day, the Capitals brought their captain out to speak to the media. First, Ovechkin, 37, made a neutral statement without assigning any blame. “Please, no more war. It doesn’t matter who’s in the war — Russia, Ukraine, different countries,” he said.
When asked if he still supported Putin, Ovechkin replied, “Well, he’s my president.” With regard to the invasion, he said, “Like, I am Russian, right?”
The day after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, Russian NHL star Alex Ovechkin briefly spoke to the media, saying, ‘Please, no more war,’ but declined to criticize Russia or Putin.
And perhaps his most surprising comment? “I am not in politics. I am an athlete.”
But Ovechkin has been very much a part of Russia’s political scene since 2014, when Putin’s army first invaded Ukraine, annexing Crimea and provoking war in the Ukrainian region of Donbas.
Almost immediately, Ovechkin joined an online campaign to support Russia’s actions.
Former hockey journalist Slava Malamud grew up in the Soviet Union but lives in the U.S. and used to write for the biggest sports paper in Russia, Sport-Express. His main beat was covering the Capitals, until he called out Ovechkin for his support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March 2014.
Malamud covered the Washington Capitals for Russia’s biggest sports newspaper until he criticized Ovechkin. “He took part in a campaign, which was a series of photo shoots with Russian celebrities in which they promoted the hashtag campaign called ‘Save Children from Fascism.’ The campaign’s message was that Ukraine is a Nazi or a fascist nation which is killing children for some reason.”
Malamud wrote about this vociferously on his Twitter page, upsetting Ovechkin and the team so much they took away Malamud’s credentials. “The Capitals shut me down completely. They sent me a letter saying things like criticizing Ovechkin was out of bounds and that I’m unprofessional and I would no longer be welcome in the arena.”
Around the same time, after an embarrassing showing at the home-turf Olympics in Sochi, Ovechkin captained the Russian team to a gold medal at the World Championships in Minsk, a lesser tournament with weaker players.
Malamud was there to cover it. “Putin went down into the locker-room; I was there, and Ovechkin [took] the World Championship cup and gave it to Putin. And it was a very medieval feudal scene of a loyal knight presenting the sovereign with the spoils of victory,” the journalist recalled. “Putin drank from the cup and gave Ovechkin this big, wet kiss. It was extremely symbolic. Nobody could have missed the symbolism here: The marriage of sports and power.”
Putin, who has been using hockey for propaganda purposes for years, then invited Ovechkin and the rest of the team to be feted in the Kremlin. This is where the infamous photo that is now on Ovechkin’s Instagram account was taken.
A group of men in dark suits stand for a picture, some with ties some without. Front and centre, the only man without a medal, Russian president Vladimir Putin, looks up at and gestures to a tall man with the medal, holding a large gold cup. The medal is blue and pinned on the left lapel.
The courtship picked up in 2017. Putin called Ovechkin on his wedding day, and the hockey player helped form a propaganda vehicle for Putin’s presidential campaign, which he called — in English — the Putin Team.
It was geared toward young people, and Ovechkin personally addressed them in Russian in a short video. “Let’s not be embarrassed to be perceived as unhip. I am for Putin and I am not hiding it. Putin Team!”
Alex Ovechkin has claimed he’s ‘not in politics,’ but he has publicly supported Russian President Vladimir Putin for years, including in this 2017 campaign video.
Malamud believes this crossed a line. “That was a message of a politician, a person who has willingly become a political ambassador [for someone] who is promoting tyranny.”
Should Ovie be punished?
Hockey fans and North Americans, in general, paid little attention to all of this until Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago. As various professional sports were banning teams from Russia around the world, the NHL and the Capitals knew they had to address the fact that there were dozens of Russian players in the league — not the least of them, the superstar Ovechkin.
On Feb. 28, 2022, the NHL issued a statement, condemning Russia’s invasion but took no other steps to discipline or suspend any of the players. On the contrary, they stressed that those players would need protection. “We also remain concerned about the well-being of the players from Russia, who play in the NHL on behalf of their NHL clubs, and not on behalf of Russia. We understand they and their families are being placed in an extremely difficult position.”
Since Ovechkin’s three-minute media availability as the war began, neither he nor the Capitals have commented on the subject.
Before Ovechkin returned to Russia last week due to the death of his father, CBC News tried to get comments from him, the Capitals and the NHL, but was rejected by them all. The NHL never responded.
Despite the public nature of Ovechkin’s ties to Putin, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told a Finnish newspaper in November, “I don’t know what Ovechkin’s relationship is with Vladimir Putin.”
No NHL player, current or former, has spoken out on the Ovechkin controversy save one — goaltending great Dominik Hasek. On Twitter, Hasek, who retired in 2012 and now lives in Prague, called Ovechkin’s statement “chicken shit.”
In an interview with the CBC, he expanded further. “Alex is the best advertisement for the war, out of all the Russian hockey players — and that’s because he is both the best shooter and Putin’s trusted propagandist.”
Beyond Ovechkin, Hasek thinks all of the dozens of Russian players in the NHL should face suspension. “The Russian army attacked democratic Ukraine for absolutely no reason,” said Hasek, who grew up in communist Czechoslovakia. “Russian hockey players in the NHL are now the best advertisement for the Russian war and Russian crimes, including the genocide of Ukrainian children. “Therefore, if the NHL does not want to support the Russian war and crimes, it must not allow Russian players to go on the ice.”
The Canadian and the U.S governments have issued economic sanctions against many prominent Putin supporters, but not Ovechkin or other Russian hockey players. Hasek thinks they need to intervene, if the NHL won’t act.
Szymon Szemberg disagrees. He is a retired official of the International Ice Hockey Federation, originally from Poland but living in Sweden most of his life.
As a longtime hockey journalist, he’s followed the issue from different angles and is very critical of the Putin invasion. But he doesn’t believe the NHL should ban Russian players.
“You cannot disqualify or ban someone because he is from Russia,” said Szemberg. “I’m the first one to say that Ovechkin holds despicable views, but either you have free speech or you don’t.”
Szemberg agrees that the Putin photo is difficult to stomach and has a suggestion. “If I were the NHL, I would encourage him to take it away, because it looks bad. It looks bad on him, it looks bad on the league and it looks bad on the Washington Capitals.” According to Emily Kaplan, a hockey writer with ESPN, they have already done that. “I was told that the Washington Capitals have asked Ovie to take it down; they have asked him to deactivate his Instagram account,” Kaplan reported in March 2022. “And Ovie, each time, has told them, ‘If I do both of those, I really feel like that is a sign back home that I am speaking out against Putin. And I feel like my family is in danger.'”
How real is that threat?
This claim is at the heart of the entire story: the idea that if Ovechkin or any of the other players were to criticize Putin or the invasion, there would be terrible consequences for their families in Russia. But Malamud says there’s no evidence of that. “That’s certainly something Ovechkin would want people to believe. That’s the line that the Washington Capitals have chosen. But nothing could be further from the truth.”
In the Soviet era, the Kremlin was known to retaliate against the families of dissidents who spoke out from abroad. But however autocratic and violent Putin has been during his 23 years in power, Malamud says attacking families of critics has never been part of the regime’s modus operandi. “Putin doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t go after celebrities. He trusts his loyal propaganda people to smear those celebrities and that’s it,” said Malamud. “Putin goes after people who are either powerless and have nobody to defend them, or he goes after his political opponents who are legitimate threats to him, like [opposition politician Alexei] Navalny.”
Malamud offers the example of singer Alla Pugacheva, a beloved star and arguably Russia’s biggest celebrity for the past 50 years, who left Russia to live in Israel when the invasion began. Soon after, she and her almost equally famous husband, comedian Maxim Galkin, began criticizing the war. Their family hasn’t been touched, Malamud says.
“[She] comes out and says very unambiguously in the first months of the war, ‘This is a crime. We shouldn’t be doing this. This is horrible.’ Ovechkin can’t do it?” There are other examples of Russian celebrities and sports figures speaking out against the war without known consequences for their families.
In Barcelona, Russian female soccer star Nadezdha Karpova, who was taken under Lionel Messi’s wing, has repeatedly used her Instagram account to call Putin names like “scum” and ask that he be prosecuted as a war criminal.
Similarly, the retired captain of the men’s soccer team, Igor Denisov, denounced the war in strong terms. “This war is a disaster, a complete horror for me,” he said in an interview with a Russian YouTuber last June. “I don’t know if they jail or kill me for what I’m saying, but I’m saying what I feel. And why should many people who disapprove remain silent?”
When two of Denisov’s sons were later kept out of an elite soccer program in St. Petersburg, some suggested it was punishment for speaking out, but the academy denies that was the reason.
Hasek is sympathetic, and suggests offering refugee status to athletes willing to denounce Putin’s war, but wants people to keep their focus on what is happening in Ukraine. “I know it’s very difficult for Russian players to condemn the war. I completely understand. But you have to think about one thing: We’re talking about maybe 100,000 lost lives [in Ukraine],” he said. “So compare these two things, and you see life is more important than maybe some little trouble in Russia.”
Aside from Hasek, one other legendary athlete has spoken out — retired basketball superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose own NBA scoring record has just been broken. “Ovechkin is not a man fighting for equality and against injustice, just more killing. That is not a man whose athletic feats I want to celebrate. Nor do I want our children to look up to him as a hero,” he wrote in his newsletter.
Abdul-Jabbar said he believes the NHL should suspend Ovechkin and sponsors should fire him — writing that while athletes can take positions based on their beliefs, they also need to take the consequences.
In the world of professional sports, including the NHL, it’s not unusual for players to face discipline under what are called “morality clauses” for unacceptable conduct off the ice or field, including domestic violence and racist or homophobic slurs.
Last fall, the Brooklyn Nets suspended NBA player Kyrie Irving for eight games without pay for refusing to “unequivocally say he has no antisemitic beliefs” after tweeting a link to a documentary that included Holocaust denial and conspiracy theories about Jews.
Malamud believes the difference in Ovechkin’s case is all about what the league believes society finds acceptable — or unacceptable.
While Malamud says the NBA knows its audience cares about antisemitism, he thinks the NHL’s silence is a sign of societal indifference to the war in Ukraine. “I mean, you can’t be racist, you can’t be homophobic, you can’t be beating up your wife and getting away with it in the world of American professional sports. But genocide, the war of conquest on the other side of the world — ahh, they figure that most people would not care about it, especially.”
Alex Shprintsen is an award-winning documentary producer who has worked with CBC News for more than 25 years.