Mark Kersten is an assistant professor at the University of the Fraser Valley’s Criminology & Criminal Justice department, and a senior consultant at the Wayamo Foundation.
The National Hockey League’s official Instagram account regularly highlights Washington Capitals winger Alexander Ovechkin, one of hockey’s premier stars who is on the hunt for a historical achievement: breaking Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal-scoring record. Open the NHL’s Instagram stories, and you can access Mr. Ovechkin’s own account, where he regularly shares posts with his 1.6 million followers.
Greeting viewers from Mr. Ovechkin’s Instagram profile photo is none other than a man facing war-crimes charges at the International Criminal Court: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A recent in-depth CBC investigation outlined how Mr. Ovechkin has developed a very close relationship with Mr. Putin over the last decade. In 2014, Mr. Ovechkin endorsed Mr. Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine, parroting Kremlin claims that the military operation was necessary to protect Ukrainian children from “fascism.” Even as Russian authorities crushed domestic dissent and jailed thousands of democratic opponents of the Russian President, Mr. Ovechkin personally campaigned for Mr. Putin’s re-election.
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 a reporter asked Washington Capitals coach Peter Laviolette why his captain’s Instagram profile photo featured Mr. Putin, Mr. Laviolette replied: “I’m going to talk about hockey tonight.”
By minimizing Mr. Putin’s crimes, the NHL is sport-washing mass atrocities. Now, with an ICC warrant out for Mr. Putin’s arrest, will the NHL and Mr. Ovechkin finally change their tune?
The NHL has proven to be a laggard when it comes to promoting basic human rights. It was slow to denounce anti-Black racism following the murder of George Floyd, and it has been slow to celebrate gender diversity. On the latter, some of its hockey teams even appear to be following the Kremlin’s instructions.
In late 2022, Russia expanded its ban on so-called “LGBT propaganda.” Now, numerous NHL hockey teams have decided not to wear Pride-themed warm-up jerseys, citing fears that Russian-born players might face unspecified “security threats” if they were to don them. Instead of doing what some teams have done – having everyone except the Russian players wear the jerseys to celebrate the LGBTQ community – the Minnesota Wild, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks have decided to just avoid them outright. Mr. Putin must be ecstatic about the reach of his homophobic policies.
Some hockey fans insist that Mr. Ovechkin and other Russian hockey players have been mum on atrocities in Ukraine because their families in Russia would otherwise be at risk. But if someone is so afraid of a person, would they feature them on their Instagram profile?
Mr. Putin isn’t new to accusations of committing war crimes or crimes against humanity. He is implicated in both in Syria, where thousands of civilians have been killed by Russian forces and their Syrian government allies. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and the ICC has said that there is a “reasonable basis for investigation” into war crimes committed there afterward. Despite all that, Mr. Ovechkin has worked hard to appear with the Russian leader and make him as popular as possible.
Now, the ICC has issued a warrant for Mr. Putin’s arrest for Russia’s alleged abduction and forcible transfer of as many as 16,000 children from Ukraine to Russia since the start of the war.
NHL goaltending legend Dominik Hasek has proposed banning all Russian hockey players from the NHL. That is nonsense. We must remember that Russia is not Mr. Putin and Mr. Putin is not Russia.
But we can ask Russian hockey players and the NHL to be decent. Mr. Ovechkin and the NHL can and should condemn Mr. Putin. There is absolutely nothing, for instance, forcing Mr. Ovechkin to keep Mr. Putin’s image on his Instagram profile.
After all, what does the 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 Mr. Ovechkin’s highlight-reel goals are more important than the victims of Russian atrocities.
Enough is enough. The NHL and its players, including Mr. Ovechkin, must break the silence, condemn the invasion and Russia’s atrocities, and stand with victims of Russian aggression in Ukraine.