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Russian NHL players mostly staying silent about Ukraine war

The IIHF banned Russian and Belarusian national teams and clubs from participation "in every age category" and in IIHF competitions "until further notice" and has pulled the 2023 World Juniors from Russia.

ARLINGTON, Va. — Russian players in the National Hockey League have remained mostly quiet about their country’s invasion of Ukraine, largely the result of fearing potential fallout back home.

Among the 41 Russia-born players currently in the NHL, only Washington star Alex Ovechkin and Calgary defenseman Nikita Zadorov have weighed in about the war. That list is not expected to grow much, if at all, given the threats that exist in Russia for players and their families.

“It’s difficult for all the Russian players in the league,” said Brian MacLellan, general manager of the Capitals, who have three other Russians on their roster in addition to Ovechkin. “There’s a lot of pressure put on them to have a political opinion either way, and they’re trying to balance out how they live their lives and what their political opinions are and the repercussions that could happen back home. It’s a difficult situation for these guys.”

Several NHLPA-certified agents who represent Russian players spoke with The Associated Press about the challenges for their clients but would not go on the record out of concern the details could lead to negative consequences. They said players have been told not to share opinions about Ukraine because of the political climate back home, where the Russian parliament is considering making it a crime to spread what the government considers fake news about its military efforts in Ukraine.

Agent Dan Milstein represents more than a dozen Russian and Belarusian players who have appeared in an NHL game this season including defending champion Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy. He said he has received threats by email and on social media since telling ESPN many of his clients are dealing with harassment.

“This is just me, the Ukrainian agent, getting this,” said Milstein, who was born in Kyiv and left Ukraine as a political refugee amid the breakup of the Soviet Union. “It has been difficult for some (players). Some guys find refuge by stepping on the ice and playing the game. ... But could you imagine stepping on the ice and playing a competitive game thinking that your wife and your newborn child are at home unprotected?”

Ovechkin’s wife, children and parents are in Russia. Longtime Pittsburgh rival Evgeni Malkin’s parents are also there.

Milstein expressed appreciation for the efforts of the league, players’ union, teams and police departments. The NHL said in a statement earlier this week it is “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.”

An NHL spokesman said the league wanted to stand by that statement without elaborating. When contacted, the NHLPA said it has been in communication with the league regarding security measures at both the league and team levels.

Both for Ovechkin, who is a well-known supporter of Vladimir Putin and made a plea for peace, and Zadorov, who posted to Instagram the messages, “NO WAR” and “STOP IT!!!” there has been feedback from many sides. Ovechkin was criticized for not condemning the actions of the Russian president he once campaigned for as part of the “Putin Team,” while Zadorov could be blacklisted from playing for his country’s national team.

The NHL’s lone Russian player who has voiced opposition to Putin, New York Rangers winger Artemi Panarin, erased all elements of that criticism from his Instagram account and made it private.

Agents who spoke to The AP said the majority of the threats made have come on social media and do not think Russian players in North America are in more immediate danger than the general population. Many instead emphasized the threat for players’ friends and family members back home if any speak out against the war.

“It is definitely a concern because it’s a catch-22,” Milstein said. “Hockey players have families at home. They are concerned on both sides of the ocean.”

NHL players have mostly been advised not to talk about the invasion of Ukraine. Ovechkin, a special case given his place as one of the most influential and popular Russian athletes at home and in the U.S capital, said in his public comments: “Please, no more war. It doesn’t matter who is in the war, Russia, Ukraine, different countries. I think we live in a world that we have to live in peace.”

MacLellan made it clear Ovechkin and countrymen Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov and Ilya Samsonov have the Capitals’ support.

“They’ve got to balance out a lot of different things,” MacLellan said. “I just think it’s hard for them to figure out where they fit into the two situations and what they can say, what they can’t say and what their true feelings are.”