Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Russian-born players in the NHL have dealt with uncertainty, concern for the safety and well-being of loved ones back home and harassment from fans as some expect to speak out against their home country. .
The league also faced complex issues, including unsafe cross-border travel and managing international relations.
As one NHL GM put it simply: “There’s an elephant in the room right now.”
Another GM added, “This is a complicated situation that, frankly, many of us are not qualified to talk about. And so out of respect for those players, we’ve kept the conversation out of the public sphere.”
Here are some of the dynamics going on behind the scenes in the NHL as the war continues.
Life for players in the NHL
Last season, many Russian players refused to speak to the media after the invasion. If the Russian players spoke, it was almost always by agreement with the journalists that “there will be no questions about Russia.”
Forty Russian-born players made NHL opening night rosters. (There are currently no Ukrainian-born players in the league.)
With the locker rooms open to the media again this season, those players are more accessible. One Russian player told ESPN he was in an “impossible situation”.
“The media wants us to talk just to get us to say things that fit their story,” the player said. “But they don’t really understand the situation, neither how it is with our families, nor what is actually happening.” If I say that I’m proud of where I’m from and that I love being Russian, I’m painted as a bad guy – – even if I don’t support the war. So what should I do, lie?”
That’s why, the player said, it’s easiest not to say anything. He also noted that the topic of war was not brought up by his teammates in the locker room or on trips because “we just focus on the job, which is hockey.”
“People want [our players] to speak a certain way, but you’re not going to tell someone how to think politically — just like you avoid talking about religion or politics at Thanksgiving,” one general manager with several Russian players on the roster told ESPN. It’s conflicting for athletes and a strange dynamic.”
For the Russian players, the biggest concern was their safety, as well as the safety of their families. According to several sources, some teams – especially teams with strong resources – are doing things behind the scenes to help Russian players. This includes help with getting visas for family members and even help with relocation.
The war did not affect the contracts of current NHL players, but it did affect their total earnings. Equipment manufacturer CCM, for example, stopped using Russian players in all global marketing campaigns. According to several NHL marketing agents, there are very few brands willing to make new deals with Russian-born players while they wait for the climate. However, it is expected that there will be marketing activations around Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin this season as he moves closer to Gordie Howe on the all-time leaderboard.
Ovechkin has been a topic of conversation throughout the war, given his previous vocal support for Vladimir Putin — and the fact that he still appears with Putin in his Instagram profile picture. But those closest to Ovechkin say the dynamic is complex for one of Russia’s most famous athletes and that there are still concerns about his family back home, which is one of the reasons he hasn’t changed his photo.
Travel for Russian players
According to sources, no NHL team has prevented its Russian-born players from traveling home this summer, despite the unpredictability of travel restrictions. “How do you tell a guy not to visit his family, the place he grew up?” said one CEO. “But I think a lot of us were holding our breath, just making sure there were no hiccups.”
The process of re-applying for visas was much more complicated — and slower — than in previous years.
The US consulate in Moscow has suspended visa services, so many Russian-born players have been flying to other countries to get their documents approved, causing a few headaches. But, as one agent said, “That was on the US government — they’re the ones who made it difficult.”
When the San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators opened the season in Prague as part of the NHL Global Series, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs first told the league that Russian players would not be welcome due to the war in Ukraine.
The Sharks, from GM Mike Grier to captain Logan Couture, have publicly taken a firm stance: If the Russians can’t go, the whole team won’t.
The Czech government eventually gave up trying to ban it. Predators Jakov Trenin and Sharks Aleksandar Barabanov and Yevgeny Svechnikov played in Prague. According to people close to the players, they felt no hostility and were even stopped by fans for photos and autographs during the trip.
At the league level
The NHL condemned the Russian government shortly after the February invasion and severed all business relations in Russia — including its Russian-language website, media and sponsorship deals. The league office also quickly separated the Russian government’s records with the league’s Russian players. The NHL said it would support its players, including additional safety, which has continued this season.
The NHL and NHLPA are working with the IIHF to host the World Cup of Hockey in February 2024. The IIHF has banned Russia from international events, but the NHL and NHLPA hope they can find a solution — such as having Russian athletes compete under a neutral name or a flag. But deputy commissioner Bill Daly said other participating countries did not find that satisfactory and were advocating for the Russian player not to participate at all.
“Especially since the NHL didn’t go to the last two Olympics, playing in this tournament is deeply personal for the Russian players,” agent Dan Milstein, who represents the majority of Russian players in the NHL, told ESPN. “I will work closely with everyone involved to find a solution here.” We will fight until the end. This is a very important issue for players and not including it is absolutely unfair.
The question of the KHL
One concern for the NHL is its relationship with the Kontinental Hockey League, a league that includes teams from several countries, but the vast majority are based in Russia. The KHL, considered the second best hockey league in the world, had a good relationship with the NHL. The NHL considered sending a team to Russia for exhibition games or reintroducing a KHL/NHL crossover event. Those talks are for an indefinite period, and the league is cutting off all business relations with Russia.
The KHL and NHL had a “memorandum of understanding” that required each league to honor player contracts. No KHL team has violated that memorandum, but many NHL executives have wondered if that might change. “I want to see what happens this season,” Daly told ESPN in August. “I don’t know either way yet.”
One NHL executive presented this scenario: “If a player is not happy with his playing time, or coming to the AHL, who’s to say he doesn’t go home and sign a contract there? That is now a real possibility.”
One player in particular has been caught up in the geopolitical maelstrom: Flyers prospect Ivan Fedotov, who was expected to compete for Philadelphia’s backup goalie position this season. Last season, Fedotov played for CSKA Moscow of the KHL, which is considered an extension of the Russian army. Fedotov signed a contract with the Flyers in May, and two months later, while skating at a rink in St. Petersburg, he was arrested by special forces and sent to a military base in Severomorsk. All men between the ages of 18 and 27 in Russia must serve in the military unless they have an official exemption, which is usually a university education. Fedotov was detained for military evasion.
“This type of kidnapping and sending young men to Arctic bases has been used as retaliation against opposition figures in Russia,” Washington Post Russia correspondent Mary Ilyushina explained to ESPN. “In this case, it may not have anything to do with the opposition, but leaving the Russian club for the American one.”
Fedotov hired a military lawyer, who reported that Fedotov was hospitalized after receiving “some kind of injection.” Fedotov has since been transferred to another base. His legal team has dropped his appeal of the evasion charges, and according to sources, he is hoping that after serving a year in the military, he will be released and allowed to come to the United States to begin his NHL career.
This is a case that the league is closely monitoring, as it could be the first example of a violation of the NHL and KHL memorandum. Given CSKA Moscow’s relationship with the military, it is possible that Fedotov could play for CSKA Moscow.
One general manager said he’s not as concerned about the established veterans, but more about the prospects and younger players in the league. “They seem to be more amenable to military service and so on,” the GM said. “And of course, there’s a real concern now — one that we’ve had for years, but it’s gone recently — about getting those guys in here and signing them.”
Draft and Russian perspectives
Many in the scouting community predicted that the Russians would be taken out of the first round of the 2022 NHL Draft for the first time since 2005. However, three Russian players were selected in the first round in July: Pavel Mintyukov (Anaheim Ducks, No. 10), Ivan Miroshnichenko ( Washington Capitals, No. 20) and Danila Yurov (Minnesota Wild, No. 24). It is much easier for NHL teams to select players who are already playing in North America, such as Minyukov and Yurov, who were in the Ontario Hockey League.
Miroshnichenko is more of a risk. He was once projected for the lottery, but opted out because he was still in Russia playing in the second division last season and because he will miss the 2022-23 season after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Capitals viewed his draft selection as a gamble, but the upside was too great to pass up.
Matvey Michkov is considered a top three pick in the 2023 draft, and his actions will be interesting to watch as he plays for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL this season. Several NHL teams have pulled scouts from Russia, but it’s difficult to gauge how many organizations have a Russian presence because some teams may have consultants on their payroll. Either way, Mickov will go the entire season with very few people from NHL organizations watching him. Scouts say it helps that Mickov has played in well-attended tournaments the past two years, such as the Hlinka-Grecki Cup and the 2021 World Junior Tournament in Texas.
Mickov has a contract with the KHL until the 2025-26 season. “In those tournaments, he looked like a world-class talent, someone worthy of going in the top two, three of the draft,” said one veteran amateur scout. “But I wouldn’t be shocked if there’s a sudden drop just because of the circumstances.”