Vladimir Putin has turned the NHL’s Russian tough guys into a roster of meek cowards

·4 min read
Michael Ainsworth (Radulov); Mike Carlson (Ovechkin); Alexei Novosti (Putin)/Associated Press

His name was Roman Lyashenko, and the ruling was suicide.

He played 122 games for the Dallas Stars from 2000 to 2002. After 17 games with the New York Rangers, he was dead.

On July 6, 2003, Lyashenko left a note in his Turkish hotel room where he was discovered after he hanged himself during a family vacation; his suicide note said he had an incurable disease.

The doctors who completed the autopsy found no disease.

Those with the Dallas Stars at the time suspected this was not a suicide and that Lyashenko was a victim of foul play that is not entirely uncommon in Russia.

Today’s Russian-born players are free to come to North America and play in the NHL, but they do not enjoy the same freedoms as their teammates.

This is the reach of Vladimir Putin.

As the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs continues, you will notice the continued silence from its Russian stars, most notably Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin.

The same for Dallas Stars winger Denis Gurianov and Alexander Radulov.

They do not want to talk about Russia’s war with Ukraine, which is now in its third month.

The Russian players desperately need this era’s version of Viacheslav Fetisov to represent their voice and concerns; you will not find one because they all fear for their lives, or for loved ones back in Russia.

NHL players have clout, money and power but they are not oligarchs with yachts in Monaco, Miami and Manhattan.

An NHL player has celebrity; to be Russian and voice displeasure over its invasion of Ukraine one needs power beyond a hockey stick.

The USSR collapsed at the end of 1991, when many of these players were not born or were toddlers; they don’t know what it was like then.

They know what it’s like now.

Not one word.

On Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine, and the ensuing war affected sports. It is not a coincidence this invasion started less than a week after after the conclusion of the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Once that was over, the invasion proceeded.

So did sports.

The Wimbledon tennis tournament banned Russian players from competing. FIFA and the UEFA banned all Russian clubs and national teams from their respective sanctioned events, including 2022 World Cup qualifying matches.

The UEFA moved the 2022 Champions League final from St. Petersburg in Russia to France.

The NHL’s relationship with Russia is mostly through a handful of players.

Players who are big. Fast. Strong. Athletic.

Players who do not fear dropping the gloves with a 6-foot-5 man on skates; yet, these same men fear the specter of a 5-foot-7 man to the point of silence.

Ovechkin, who reportedly has a friendly relationship with Putin, was asked about the invasion two days after it began.

He answered the question, while avoiding anything remotely critical of a bloody land grab.

“It’s not something I can control and I hope it’s going to end soon and it’s going to be peace in both countries,” he told the media at a press conference on Feb. 25.

He did say, “He’s my President. I’m not in politics. I’m an athlete. It’s a hard situation for both sides.”

You might have seen a Russian-born NHL player lobby for peace. You would not see a Russian-born NHL player condemn the invasion.

It is not worth the risk of potential retribution against themselves, or family members who still live in Russia.

Of this current era of Russian born players there is not a one of them who knew what it was like when that generation risked their lives to leave the USSR to play in the NHL.

They might know Alexander Mogilny’s name, but they probably don’t know what he did. He was the first Soviet to defect in order to play in the NHL. That was in 1989.

Ovechkin was 5 when Mogilny left for Buffalo.

Ovechkin was still a kid when defenseman Slava Fetisov stood up to the entire USSR and took advantage of something called “glasnost” and criticized the policies of his government, and the Soviet’s famed Red Army team.

Fetisov was one of the best players in the U.S.S.R.; rather than defect, he challenged the system, and was suspended for an entire season.

Due in part because of his voice, the system he challenged collapsed. He came over to the NHL and had a Hall of Fame-caliber career.

The NHL needs that type of voice right now from one of its Russian players, but you will not find it.

Even Fetisov, who showed more courage than necessary, caved.

Fetisov is a senator now in Russia, and in 2015 he proposed all Russian born hockey players who played in Russia’s KHL not be allowed to leave for the NHL until they are 28.

The man who risked everything to bring down the Iron Curtain sought to rebuild some of it.

That is not a coincidence.

It is the same reason why guys like Ovechkin, Gurianov, Radulov and the rest are all silent.

This is the reach of Vladimir Putin.

Not one word.