Breaking down the hockey world’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine

It’s been a long and heartbreaking week for the people of Ukraine and Russia.

On February 24, Russian troops began to invade Ukraine. Thousands of both Ukrainian and Russian lives have since been lost due to the fighting taking place. World leaders were quick to react and placed many sanctions on Russia and their ally Belarus. Additionally, many organizations worldwide have also put forth their own versions of sanctions, alongside the many voices from around the world who have made clear to denounce the actions of Vladimir Putin.

Russia and its athletes have long been a part of the fabric of Hockey. According to Quant Hockey, 5.2% of active NHL players are of Russian nationality, making them the fifth largest group in the league. The national sport of Russia is also bandy, which is a form of hockey. Unlike any of the other big four North American professional sports leagues, Russia is a huge part of the identity of the NHL. So, how organizations like the NHL, IIHF, etc., and star hockey players react to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine could actually hold some weight in how this war progresses.

Now that the world has had a week to respond to the war in Ukraine, we have compiled a variety of reactions from around the Hockey World.

The international response

On February 27, the Swiss Ice Hockey Association made a list of demands to the International Ice Hockey Federation. These demands were:

  1. The IIHF must remove the Russian and Belarusian hockey federations from the IIHF.
  2. The IIHF must withdraw the upcoming December 2022 IIHF U20 World Junior Championship from Novosibirsk, and the IIHF World Championship from St. Petersburg in May 2023.
  3. The IIHF should immediately exclude Russian or Belarusian citizens from all official positions and committees of the IIHF.
  4. Immediate termination of cooperation between the IIHF and the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).

The Latvian Ice Hockey Federation joined the Swiss on February 27 condemning Russia’s aggression. They announced Latvia would no longer be playing their scheduled test games with the Russian Olympic Team and Belarusian National team in preparation for the 2022 World Cup.

Wayne Gretzky also added to the pressure on the IIHF, when he spoke during a broadcast of the NHL on TNT:

“I think international hockey should say, ‘We’re not gonna let them play in the world junior hockey tournament. I think we got to, as Canadians, take that stance since the games are going to be played in Edmonton.”

– Wayne Gretzky

The following day on February 28 the IIHF released a statement declaring that both Russia and Belarus would be suspended from appearing in any IIHF competitions and that Russia will no longer have the hosting rights for the 2023 World Juniors. You can read the rest of their press release here.

In response to the IIHF’s decision EA Sports also announced it would be removing the Russian and Belarusian IIHF teams from both FIFA22 and NHL22.

Yesterday, it was also announced by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) that athletes from Russia and Belarus would no longer be allowed to participate in the 2022 Winter Paralympics which start today. Originally it was announced by the IPC that these athletes would be allowed to participate as neutral athletes, but that is no longer the case in this rapidly escalating situation.

Player responses

While the IIHF’s and IPC’s responses are huge, it’s important we also look at how Russian players in the NHL have reacted in the last week. The most notable Russian in the NHL for the past few decades has been Alex Ovechkin, who has long been known to be a supporter of Putin. In fact Ovechkin still to this day has a picture of himself and Putin set as his profile photo on Instagram.

It is also worth noting that Ovechkin started the #PutinTeam movement on social media in 2017, which was a show of support for Putin from various influential Russians, including other NHL players and alumni like Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Pavel Bure.

After the invasion, Ovechkin also announced he would need a day to collect his thoughts and he made himself unavailable to the media until February 25.

When he finally did appear before the media, many found the above media availability quite underwhelming. While he did say “no more war” he also still referred to Putin as “my president”, and tried to play the ignorant athlete card when answering multiple questions.

On Monday, CCM Hockey announced it would no longer be using Ovechkin and other Russian NHL players in their global marketing.

Partially in response to Ovechkin’s words on the matter, Czech Hockey Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek wrote on his Twitter page: “The NHL must immediately suspend contracts for all Russian players! Every athlete represents not only himself and his club, but also his country and its values and actions. That is a fact. If the NHL does not do so, it has indirect co-responsibility for the dead in Ukraine.”

Hasek’s suggested approach has been met with lots of criticism. As many Russians didn’t choose for this war to happen and have just been forced into the crossfire by Putin. Therefore many believe that Russian athletes shouldn’t be punished for the actions of Putin and his government.

Nikita Zadorov though is one of the few other Russian players who have shared their thoughts on the war, in quite a clear message:

Outside of these two players, the response has been pretty silent. But it’s fairly easy to see why. In February 2021 Artemi Panarin chose to take a leave of absence to ensure his family’s safety after he openly supported the now-jailed Putin Critic and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Putin made an example of Panarin last year, and this could be one of the many reasons most athletes have chosen to stay silent.

TSN’s Rick Westhead also reported in a tweet on Wednesday that many agents are currently advising their Russian clients to be careful due to new censorship laws the Russian government is working on implementing surrounding “fake news” about the war.

Reactions throughout the KHL

The Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) has also been shaken up quite considerably this last week. The Finnish based Jokerit Helsinki decided they will not continue to participate in the KHL playoffs.

While Jokerit’s future in the league is still to be determined, Dinamo Riga of Latvia also announced it would withdraw from the KHL entirely. Their Chairman Juris Savickis said “The decision to withdraw from KHL has been made, thus expressing a clear position of the club management. In such a military and humanitarian crisis, we do not see any opportunity for cooperation with the Kontinental Hockey League.“

Jokerit and Dinamo Riga were two of the few five non-Russian teams in the KHL. With their departure from the league only China’s Kunlun Red Stars, Belarus’ Dynamo Minsk, and Kazakhstan’s Barys Nur-Sultan remain.

Other responses

Boycotts and sanctions haven’t been the only way in which the Hockey world has showed its support for Ukraine. Many teams across the NHL have paid tribute to Ukraine in their opening anthem ceremonies with moments of silence and by playing the anthem. Last night, the Flames held a brief tribute for Ukraine, and on Tuesday night Winnipeg brought in the local Hoosli Ukrainian Men’s Choir who performed Ukraine’s national anthem. Check out the video of their performance below:

We will be updating this article as related developments occur.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone impacted by these horrendous events in Ukraine.

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