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Alex Ovechkin jokes with Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov at Capital One Arena in Washington on Dec. 17.Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

As you read this, it’s possible Alex Ovechkin has passed Gordie Howe (801 NHL goals) on the career list.

When Ovechkin does it, the NHL will congratulate the Russian player, as it did when he scored his 800th and Howe-matching 801st early on Friday night. People around hockey will rewrite their encomiums to his longevity and skill. The Washington Capitals will celebrate like it’s a Stanley Cup, because it’s the closest they’ll be getting to that trophy for a while.

Everyone will celebrate the standard being set. What no one can do is celebrate the person setting it. We’ve reached the point where it’s considered bad manners to bring up the problem.

“Yes, yes, wonderful hockey player. An era-defining talent. Enemy of the state? Yes, possibly. But like I said, great hands.”

There’s a lot of bad luck involved here, but still. Only the NHL could find itself with a face of the league who scores a lot of goals, as well as endorses a despotic warmonger who’s dangled nuclear annihilation over the country where he plays.

Ovechkin was given a chance to distance himself from Russian President Vladimir Putin back in March. He decided not to take it. After heavy prompting, he offered a little aside about war being bad and living in peace and then decided to move on.

To this day, Ovechkin’s Instagram avatar is a picture of himself flashing the ‘V’ for victory while cuddled up to Putin.

Everyone in hockey took from that the same cue as Ovechkin’s Capitals’ foil, Nicklas Backstrom. Speaking to a Swedish outlet in the summer, Backstrom explained how two pals navigate the heavy stuff that pops up in any relationship.

“Me and Ovi have decided that in our relationship we do not talk about politics and what is happening in Ukraine at all,” the Swedish forward told Expressen. “It’s the same in the dressing room. Nobody talks about that.”

That sounds healthy. Maybe what the Capitals need isn’t better defence. Maybe what they need is a marriage counsellor.

But every workplace makes accommodations in order to avoid the employees killing each other. This one is special in that all the workers live together for seven or eight months of the year.

That’s the Capitals’ excuse. What’s the NHL’s?

If the league sold cereal instead of hockey, it might’ve wanted Ovechkin, one of its public faces, to be more forthcoming. And having refused to do so, it would have jettisoned him with extreme prejudice. But the NHL has never been good at figuring out what’s in its own interest.

No sports league in human history – and I’m reaching back here to Lions v. Christians – has done a worse job of marketing and promotion. It’s not surprising that the NHL was caught staring dimly into the middle distance when Ovechkin made it look idiotic last spring.

But what has it been doing since?

It can’t have been a huge surprise that Ovechkin – then sitting on 760-something goals – was going to get to 800 at some point. It knew to a certainty that he would pass Howe almost immediately thereafter. It also knew that that would create a countdown situation with Wayne Gretzky (894). And that all of those things would happen within days, and possibly minutes, of each other.

Given so much certainty and lead time, how has the league not figured out a way to counterprogram that story?

This isn’t suggesting it should attack Ovechkin personally, or ignore his achievements. The NHL has decided that a Putin cheerleader within its ranks is okay as long as he never talks about it. It doesn’t cover anyone involved in glory, but people can make up their own minds about how or if they want to support that approach.

But accepting that you’re not getting what you want out of Ovechkin doesn’t mean you can’t work the problem from the other end.

The NHL could be two things at once – the highest profile North American employer of Russians, and the loudest sporting supporter of Ukraine.

The two approaches could complement each other. It’s a lovely way of saying we don’t blame any person for things their government does, but at the same time we feel a responsibility to make a strong statement about what’s happening.

The NHL just missed a perfect opportunity on that score. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was in Washington this week. Why not invite him to a Capitals’ game?

Would he have come? Probably not. He has more important things to do.

But publicly extending the offer would have been an unsubtle, powerful rebuke to Ovechkin’s obvious political leanings. It would’ve gone a long way to putting the league on the right side of this fight. And it might’ve shaken loose some honest talk about where the NHL is at and what it actually believes in (aside from the value of a dollar). If the NBA or the English Premier League found themselves in the same situation that the NHL does now, they would’ve figured out a way to push back. That’s why they are both enormous global concerns.

The NHL can’t, which is why it is a parochial league. Hockey’s globalization problem isn’t that it’s played on ice. It’s that it can’t see anything past Alaska. For the NHL, the west coast is where the world ends. It isn’t just an opportunity missed, but an opportunity whiffed on. This should be easy. More than any other cultural sector, sports is equipped to do battle using symbols. You don’t have to go shouting about what you believe in. You can do a lot with a single montage or an invitation.

But not the NHL. This is the league public relations forgot. From top to bottom, the only thing it is good at is the Backstrom approach to difficult issues – agree to never talk about it, and hope that somehow wars end by themselves.