Alex Ovechkin’s situation is not as simple as “Putin is my president”
Ovechkin’s legacy as a goalscorer is forever secure and, in the wake of the 36-year-old’s ninth 50-goal season, it even continues to grow. With the Capitals’ fourth straight first-round outing in the playoffs, its legacy of team success is on pause at best. As he returns to Russia to reunite with his young family, his off-ice legacy grows more complicated by the day.
Why does he not forcefully denounce what Russia is doing in Ukraine?
“I’ve said it before,” Ovechkin told me in a brief exchange on Sunday. ” I have already said it. What else can I say?”
What he said in February, shortly after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, included this: “Please no more war. It doesn’t matter who is at war – Russia, Ukraine, different countries. I think we live in a world, like, we have to live in peace and in a big world.
A beautiful feeling. But Ovechkin also said this about Putin: “He’s my president, but… I don’t do politics.”
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So I asked him on Sunday: Can you understand, given the horrifying situation in Ukraine, why people would want you to take a stronger stance against Putin?
“He’s my president, isn’t he?” said Ovechkin. “I’m Russian. What else can I say?”
If he is not double down it’s definitely not support down. Is it his choice based on his beliefs? It’s hard to know.
Here is what we To do Know: In 2017, Ovechkin put his name and face on an online social movement to support Putin in the (mock) Russian elections the following year. His Instagram account still features a photo of a smiling Ovechkin alongside his autocratic leader. Ovechkin’s parents are deeply rooted in the Russian athletic machine, his mother is a former Olympic basketball player and official of a powerful Moscow club. His wife and two young boys are in Russia.
And there are people close to Ovechkin who suspect there could be ramifications for the Capitals captain if he even appeared to speak out against Putin and his heinous actions.
“That rings true,” said Brian Whitmore, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “This regime is ruthless and Putin has been very vindictive. Ovechkin’s family is in Russia, which could make them vulnerable. All Russian athletes are in a very compromised position if they speak out.
Still, keep the avatar?
“It was a missed opportunity,” said Whitmore, who also hosts a weekly Russian affairs podcast called “The Power Vertical.” “His voice means something. Russian athletes in the United States, their voices mean something. I know a lot of Russians in different professions who express themselves very actively.
For anyone who wants to separate sport and unbridled aggression towards another country, it is too late. Wimbledon has banned Russian and Belarus players, leaving second Daniil Medvedev out of the grass courts for now. Evgeny Rylov, an Olympic gold medalist swimmer, was suspended for nine months and lost his sponsorship contract with Speedo after taking part in a Russian rally wearing a jacket emblazoned with the letter ‘Z’ – a symbol of support for the Russian operation. Putin’s actions have affected Russian athletes in all sports, but the NHL has backed its players. “We also remain concerned about the well-being of Russian players, who play in the NHL on behalf of their NHL clubs, not on behalf of Russia,” the league said in a February statement. “We understand that they and their families are placed in an extremely difficult position.”
Think of it this way: It may be risky — or uncomfortable — for someone as important as Ovechkin to swap a picture of him and Putin with, say, a picture of him with the Stanley Cup. But what the Ukrainian people face every day is more than uncomfortable.
If Ovechkin’s family is in danger, he has the means and the infrastructure—a contract that pays him $9.5 million a year, a comfortable home in the United States—to move them. Millions of Ukrainians – in Mariupol or Bucha, for example, where mass graves have been detected by satellites, where schools and hospitals have been bombed – have no such alternative. They take shelter. They fight. Ovechkin almost certainly faces political pressure, the extent of which we may not fully understand. Put them face to face with the daily pressures faced by ordinary Ukrainians, whose lives are shattered. Both can be real. They don’t feel equal.
Still, what awaits Ovechkin when he returns home could be frightening. Putin’s domestic propaganda campaign is aggressive, designed to convince his own people that Ukrainians are Nazis, that they are committing heinous crimes against their own people – nonsense, all that. You don’t have to be very creative to believe that the Kremlin would push and push Ovechkin to publicly support his cause, a hockey star used to winning hearts and minds.
They support Ukraine. So they can’t support Alex Ovechkin.
“I think that’s going to be a pretty big reveal – how he acts when he’s at home,” Whitmore said.
There will also be a revelation when he returns to the United States. This summer is longer than Ovechkin and the Capitals wanted. First-round outings do that. But it is certainly not long enough for the situation in Ukraine to be resolved. Public support for Ukraine – and sentiment against Russia – is overwhelming here. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month showed that more than three-quarters of Americans support increasing humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and two-thirds support increasing sanctions on Russia. In this polarized country at this extraordinary time, these figures are revealing.
As he shifts between these two worlds – the world he grew up in and the world he earns a living in – it’s hard for Ovechkin not to feel a pull back and forth. My colleague Roman Stubbs wrote a fascinating article ahead of the playoffs outlining the struggles Ukrainian Caps fans had rooted for a hockey hero who openly supports Putin. An example: Lynn Kessler, whose husband’s family is from Ukraine.
“The fact that Ovechkin’s profile picture on his Instagram is himself with Vladimir Putin makes me sick,” she said. “It really is.”
It’s a sample. She is not alone.
During his next training camp, preparing for his 18th season in the American capital, Ovechkin will be 37 years old. He’ll be asked about his rise on the NHL’s all-time goalscoring list, as he now leads 21-year-old Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky. by 114, and there are no more rungs on the ladder. He’ll be asked questions about the realistic chances of winning another Stanley Cup, as each year he moves further away from his championship and closer to the end of his career.
But he should also be asked again about his feelings about Putin’s war and about Putin himself. “He’s my president” just isn’t a satisfying answer.
Alex Ovechkin has the summer to explore the odiousness of what is happening in Ukraine. If he does, and comes to the conclusion that his president is responsible, he might reflect on the impact that speaking out — however subtly — might have not only on himself and his family, but also on Russians and Ukrainians. It would only solidify and deepen his off-ice legacy in the country where he became a star.