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Canucks Podkolzin, Russians Feeling Heat, NHL Cuts Off KHL

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Vancouver Canucks, Vasily Podkolzin
Vancouver Canucks forward Vasily Podkolzin.

War is war and hockey is hockey, and despite the frequent use of ‘battle’ metaphors to describe sports, the two have absolutely nothing to do with one another. Other than the fact that with Russia invading Ukraine, Russian NHL players, including Vasily Podkolzin of the Vancouver Canucks, could find themselves under increasing pressure.

We’ve heard rumours of some vocal harassment and death threats directed at Russian players on this side of the Atlantic and multiple concerns about the safety of their family members back in the motherland. The conundrum being that those who speak out in support of Vladimir Putin can expect backlash here, while speaking out against the invasion could bring danger to loved ones back home. Thousands of people have reportedly already been arrested in Russia for protesting the war.

VHN has not heard of any threats or harassment from Vancouver Canucks fans.

The National Hockey League raised it’s anti-invasion profile on Monday when it announced that it was suspending the memorandum of understanding between the NHL and the Russian KHL, instructing its teams to cease contact with KHL counterparts and Russia-based agents.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly hinted at the measure last Friday while welcoming Vancouver Hockey Now (VHN) to the new league headquarters in Manhattan.

“I’m comfortable that by and large our Russian players are not supportive of the war,” Daly told VHN. “With all the shows of support we’ve seen for Ukraine throughout the league in all of our buildings — out of respect for our Russian players, we let them know what’s going to be going on in the buildings — they’ve been perfectly fine with the shows of support for Ukraine.”

Podkolzin of the Vancouver Canucks speaks very little English and from his body language thus far has expressed nothing more or less than just what he is, a teenager playing hockey in the NHL.

Asking around the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto about the Maple Leafs Russians over the weekend, reporters and others say the topic hasn’t come up. Forward Ilya Mikheyev and defenceman Ilya Lyubushkin aren’t exactly fluent in English either. “They get by” someone said. But neither has expressed an opinion publicly at this point and apparently none of the local media has asked.

Meanwhile, the NHL’s most prominent Russian spoke up early on. Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, known to be an active supporter and friend of Russian leader Putin, leaned toward a more neutral tact while speaking out soon after the military action.

“Well, he is my president,” Ovechkin said on February 25th. “But, I am not in politics. I am an athlete, and you know, I hope everything is going to be done soon. It’s hard situation right now for both sides and everything, like how I said, everything I hope is going to be end. I’m not in control of this situation.”

Ovechkin’s wife and kids apparently remain in Russia.

“Of course (we) pay attention what’s happened out there. I don’t want to see nobody get hurt, nobody get killed. How I said, hope it’s going to be over, and we going to be living in good world. It’s hard question because it just happen a couple days ago. We’ll see what’s going to happen.”

Daly said the league’s biggest concern remains the welfare and security of the players.

“I think for the most part the criticism has mostly been lodged by way of social media and I don’t think there has been any direct harassment of Russian players, and we want to keep it that way,” Daly said. “As the (original NHL) statement said, they’re kind of in an impossible position, most of them have family back in Russia, and they obviously have nothing to do with the decisions that are being made on the political front. I’m sure it’s a difficult situation for them. As difficult as it is for everyone else, it’s probably most difficult for them.”

The league released its official statement on the military action on Monday, February 28.

The National Hockey League condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and urges a peaceful resolution as quickly as possible. Effective immediately, we are suspending our relationships with our business partners in Russia and we are pausing our Russian language social and digital media sites. In addition, we are discontinuing any consideration of Russia as a location for any future competitions involving the NHL.

We also remain concerned about the well-being of the players from Russia, who play in the NHL on behalf of their NHL Clubs, and not on behalf of Russia. We understand they and their families are being placed in an extremely difficult position.

As for his reaction to Ovechkin’s earlier comments, Daly believes peace is the resolution most on “Ovie’s” mind.

“I think he made clear, he’s hoping, like the rest of us, for a quick resolution and peace in the near term,” Daly added. “He was the first Russian player to come out and make a statement on it. I think there’s been one other, but I think most others have kept to themselves, kept their thoughts quiet.”

Vancouver Canucks forward Podkolzin hasn’t spoken to the media since training camp.

As the days go by and potential pressure mounts from reporters and North American hockey fans to hear where Russian players stand, their ability to keep it on the down low may be compromised, while oddly enough the person who most likely determines how Russian players are treated moving forward is none other than Vladimir Putin.

((Should reporters ask athletes about sensitive topics? And should players have to answer? Part of the discussion here.))

VHN Managing Editor Rob Simpson has been covering the NHL for three decades on live TV, radio, and as a journalist. He worked his first ever game getting postgame sound as a teenager; it was Vancouver vs. Detroit.

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