Monday, March 7, 2022

Russia/Ukraine War and the NHL

By Martin Banks

The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine in Eastern Europe has caused a shockwave of social and economic effects worldwide. Many sports leagues have made official statements about the conflict, but the National Hockey League has taken further action out of necessity. Forty-one Russian natives and citizens play in the NHL, which means the league has quite the dilemma on its hands.

What exactly has the NHL done in response to the war? What will happen to its Russian players? How will this conflict affect the league — and the sport of hockey as a whole — moving forward? Let's explore these questions below.

NHL's Response to the War

The war officially began on Feb. 24 when negotiations failed and Russia launched its invasion. It took the NHL almost a week to release an official statement on the subject, condemning the attack and acknowledging the Russian players' difficult situation.

Since the statement's release, the NHL has taken the following steps to protest the invasion and put additional pressure on Russia's leaders:

* Pulled televised NHL games from Yandex, a Russian-based Internet company.
* Stopped using Russian-born players in marketing and promotional activities.
* Eliminated Russia as a location for any future events.
* Removed Russian and Belarusian teams from the NHL22 video game (Belarus has allied with Russia).
* Beefed up security to protect its Russian players.

That final point of action says the most about the current situation. The NHL has acted with surprising temperance and restraint, but the hockey community doesn't think the league went far enough. Russian players face harassment and death threats on social media. Even a handful of fellow NHL players have gone on the offensive.

Hall-of-Fame goalie Dominik Hasek has been the most outspoken about the issue. "The NHL must immediately suspend contracts for all Russian players," Hasek wrote in a recent tweet. "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 also called Russian-born star Alex Ovechkin a series of insults after Ovechkin released a relatively lukewarm statement about the war. He has not explicitly condemned the invasion or ended his association with President Vladimir Putin, but he did implore his country to find a peaceful solution. Ovechkin is the greatest Russian player in NHL history and an icon of the sport, so his reaction carries a little more weight.

While the NHL has clearly taken a "side" in the conflict, it has also done everything in its power to support Russian players. After all, it's a hockey league, not a government organization. Acting rashly could jeopardize the league's existence.

Worldwide Consequences

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has taken a similar stance to the NHL with these actions:

* Banned the Russian and Belarusian national teams from competing in IIHF events.
* Pulled all future events from Russia and Belarus, including the 2023 World Junior Championships, which were supposed to take place in St. Petersburg.

The Western world has also collectively punished Russia in several ways. YouTube, Facebook and TikTok have banned Russian media across Europe. The United States and its allies launched unprecedented financial sanctions to pressure Russia into ending its invasion. With the sanctions in place and the war showing no signs of stopping, we can expect food and gas prices to continue their climb.

The Future of Russian Players

These sanctions are relevant to the NHL because the longer the conflict drags on, the more socially and economically isolated its Russian players become. The public pressure might become so great that amateur and professional leagues around the world will outright refuse Russian and Belarusian players.

The court of public opinion has never been more powerful or more irrational. For these players to lose an opportunity because of their birthplace and heritage would be blatant ethnic discrimination and a disappointing setback in the fight for equality.

The players also face increased pressure from their own homeland. The Russian parliament is currently reviewing a law that would punish anyone who spreads misinformation about the war with a 15-year sentence. If they openly speak out against the war, we might never see them again.

Peace Talks Continue

While the death and destruction continue throughout Eastern Ukraine, peace negotiations have quietly entered their second day on March 3. The world can only pray for a breakthrough, and Russians worldwide can only hope that their leaders do the right thing. If the war escalates, it might spell the end of their careers and a permanent change in the cultural fabric of the NHL.

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