The National Hockey League and its Biggest Russian Star is Sports-Washing Putin’s War Crimes

Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin and Russian President Vladimir Putin (Photo: The Guardian)

The National Hockey League (NHL) has a war crimes problem.

The NHL’s official Instagram account regularly highlights Alexander Ovechkin, one of hockey’s premier stars. Click on the NHL’s stories and you can access Ovechkin’s own account, where he regularly shares posts with his 1.6 million followers. At the top, smiling creepily at viewers from Ovechkin’s profile photo is none other a wanted war criminal: Vladimir Putin.

By actively minimizing acts of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, the NHL is sport-washing mass atrocities. Instead of calling out Ovechkin’s long-standing support for Putin, it celebrates his every goal and step towards Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal-scoring record. 

When will enough be enough? With Putin now facing war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC), will the NHL and Ovechkin finally change their tune?

Not unlike other sporting bodies such as FIFA, the NHL is a laggard when it comes to basic human rights standards. It was slow on denouncing anti-Black racism following the murder of George Floyd, and it has been slow in celebrating gender diversity. On the latter, some its hockey teams appear to be following the Kremlin’s instructions. 

In late 2022, Russia expanded its anti-gay propaganda laws. Now, numerous NHL hockey teams, most recently the Chicago Blackhawks, have decided not to wear Pride-themed jerseys because of fears that Russian-born players will face unspecified “security threats”. Instead of having everyone except the Russian players celebrate the LGBTQ community – and therefore making a point in support of sexual and gender minorities – numerous NHL teams decided that no one would wear the jerseys. Somewhere, Vladimir Putin is ecstatic about the reach of his homophobic policies. 

Back to Ovechkin. A recent in-depth CBC investigation outlined how Ovechkin developed a very close relationship with Putin since at least 2014. Ovechkin endorsed Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine that year, puppeting Kremlin claims that it was necessary to protect children from “fascism”. While Russian authorities crushed domestic dissent and jailed thousands of democratic opponents of Putin, Ovechkin worked tirelessly to ensure the Russian leader was repeatedly re-elected. 

Ask the NHL about it, though, and you get half-answers or silence. In November, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman claimed ignorance: “I don’t know what Ovechkin’s relationship is with Vladimir Putin.”When asked why Ovechkin had a picture of Putin up on his Instagram profile, Ovechkin’s coach on the Washington Capitals, Peter Laviolette, stated: “I’m going to talk about hockey tonight.” Hear that, victims of Putin’s war crimes? Hockey is more important than you.

Those victims include children. When the ICC issued its warrant against Putin, it was for the abduction and forcible transfer of children from Ukraine to Russia. Estimates suggest that some 16,000 children have been abducted by Putin’s forces since March 2022.

Some hockey fans will retort that Ovechkin and other Russian hockey players are mum on atrocities in Ukraine because their families would otherwise be “threatened” in Russia. But who is so afraid of someone that they feature them on their Instagram profile photo? Ovechkin isn’t afraid of Putin. He loves him.

Ovechkin’s acts of groveling support for Putin are almost as long as the list of mass atrocities committed by the Russian President. Putin didn’t become a war criminal in 2022. He is implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, where thousands of civilians have been murdered, tortured, and bombed by Russian forces and their Syrian allies. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and is alleged to have committed war crimes in Eastern Ukraine in the years that followed. All of this time – all of it – Ovechkin doted on Putin, promoted him, and worked hard to make the Russian leader as popular as possible.

So, what can be done? 

Famed former NHL goaltender Dominic Hašek has proposed banning all Russian hockey players from playing in the NHL. That is nonsense. Collective punishment is wrong. We must remember that Russia is not Putin and Putin is not Russia.

But we can ask Russian hockey players and the NHL to be decent. Ovechkin and the NHL can and should condemn Putin and this war. At the very least, they should do so indirectly. There is absolutely nothing forcing Ovechkin to keep Putin’s image on his Instagram profile. Keeping it up and keeping silent means that only Putin wins. Everyone else loses.

After all, what does Ovechkin’s profile picture say to the families of Ukrainian children abducted and transferred to Russia? 

What does it communicate to the women whose maternity ward in Mariupol was bombed by Russian forces? 

What does it tell those who fled war only to return to see the corpses of their loved ones strewn across the streets of Bucha?

What it does is give them the equivalent of an NHL-endorsed middle finger. It tells them that neither Ovechkin nor the NHL really care about their suffering. It tells them that Ovechkin’s highlight reel one-timers are more important than the lives of Ukrainians, Syrians, and all victims of Russian atrocities. 

Enough is enough. Break the silence, condemn the war and Russian atrocities, take down the profile photo, and stand with victims of Russian aggression and atrocity in Ukraine.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.


About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in ICC Prosecutor, International Criminal Court (ICC), Russia, Ukraine, War crimes and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The National Hockey League and its Biggest Russian Star is Sports-Washing Putin’s War Crimes

  1. Much like our own British Law Tennis associate and Wimbledon(which dropped its ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes prividing they play under a neutral flag) the NHL appears to subscribe to the nonsensical and fatuous claim that “politics are or should be separate from sport”! This is BULLSHIT to put it crudely- even leaving aside the manifest politicization of the Berlin(1936) and Moscow(1980) OLympics, political considerations have repeatedly intruded into organzied sports(including the Olympics),such as the riots and controversy surrounding the “Black Power” salutes in the Mexico City Olympics of 1968, the murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists in Munich(1972), boycotts and counter boycotts in Montreal(1976), Moscow(1980), Los Angeles (1984) and of course apartheid era South Africa’s exclusion from world sport(including the Olympics)! So much for the claim that “politics should be separare from sport) line peddled by Putinoid ass kissers like our own NigelFarage!

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