Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Russian-born players in the NHL have dealt with uncertainty, concern for the safety and well-being of loved ones back home, and harassment by fans, while being expected by some to speak out against their home country.
The league has also faced complex issues, including precarious cross-border travel and managing international relationships.
Simply put by one NHL GM: “It’s the elephant in the room right now.”
Added another GM: “This is a complicated situation that, quite frankly, a lot of us aren’t qualified to speak on. And so out of respect for those players, we’ve kept the conversation out of the public sphere.”
Here are some of the dynamics going on behind the scenes in the NHL as the war continues.
Life for players in the NHL
Last season, many Russian players declined to speak to the media altogether after the invasion. If Russian players did speak, it was nearly always under the agreement with journalists that there would be “no Russia questions.”
Forty Russian-born players made opening night rosters in the NHL. (There are currently no Ukrainian-born players in the league.)
As locker rooms have reopened to the media this season, those players are more accessible. One Russian player told ESPN that he was in an “impossible situation.”
“The media wants us to talk just so they can get us to say things to fit their story,” the player said. “But they don’t actually understand the situation, or what it’s like for our families, or what’s actually going on. If I say I am proud of where I am from and I love being Russian, I am painted as a bad guy — even if I do not support the war. So what am I supposed to do, lie?”
That’s why, the player said, it’s easiest not to say anything at all. He also noted that the topic of war hasn’t been brought up by his teammates in the locker room or on road trips as “we just focus on our jobs, and that is hockey.”
“People want [our players] to speak up in a certain way, but you’re not going to tell someone how to think politically — just like how you avoid conversations about religion or politics at Thanksgiving,” one GM with multiple Russian players on his roster told ESPN. “It’s conflicting for the athletes, and a weird dynamic.”
For Russian players, the biggest concern has been their own security, as well as the security of their families. According to several sources, some teams — especially teams with strong resources — are doing things behind the scenes to help support Russian players. That includes helping obtain visas for family members and even helping them relocate.
The war hasn’t affected contracts for current NHL players, but it has affected their overall earnings. The equipment manufacturer CCM, for example, stopped using Russian players in all global marketing campaigns. According to several NHL marketing agents, there are very few brands looking to do new business with Russian-born players as they wait out the climate. There are, however, expected to be marketing activations around Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin this season as he closes in on Gordie Howe on the all-time scoring chart.
Ovechkin has been a topic of conversation throughout the war, given his previous vocal support for Vladimir Putin — and the fact that he still appears with Putin in his Instagram profile picture. But those closest to Ovechkin have maintained that the dynamics for one of Russia’s most well-known athletes are complex, and there are still concerns over his family back home, which is one of the reasons he hasn’t changed his photo.
Travel for Russian players
According to sources, no NHL teams prevented their Russian-born players from traveling home this summer, despite the unpredictability of travel restrictions. “How are you going to tell a guy not to visit his family, the place he grew up?” one general manager said. “But I think a lot of us were holding our breath, just making sure there were no hiccups.”
The process for reapplying for visas was much more complicated — and slower — than in years past.
The U.S. consulate in Moscow has suspended visa services, so many Russian-born players flew to other countries to get their paperwork approved, which caused a few headaches. But as one agent said, “That was on the U.S. government — they are the ones that made it more difficult.”
When the San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators opened their season in Prague as part of the NHL Global Series, the Czech foreign ministry initially told the league that Russian players would not be welcome because of the war in Ukraine.
The Sharks, from GM Mike Grier to captain Logan Couture, drew a hard stance publicly: If the Russians couldn’t go, the entire team would not go.
The Czech government eventually dropped its attempted ban. The Predators’ Yakov Trenin and the Sharks’ Evgeny Svechnikov played in Prague (Alexander Barabanov didn’t play because he was injured). According to people close to the players, they did not experience any hostility and were even stopped for photographs and autographs by fans during the trip.
At the league level
The NHL condemned the Russian government shortly after February’s invasion and ended all business relations in Russia — including its Russian-language website, media and sponsorship deals. The league office was also quick to separate the acts of the Russian government with the league’s Russian players. The NHL said it would support its players, including adding extra security, which has continued this season.
The NHL and NHLPA have been working with the IIHF on hosting a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024. The IIHF has banned Russia from international events, but the NHL and NHLPA are hopeful that they could find a solution — such as having Russian athletes compete under a neutral name or flag. But deputy commissioner Bill Daly said other participating countries don’t view that as satisfactory and are advocating for no Russian player participation at all.
“Especially since the NHL didn’t go to the last two Olympics, playing in this tournament is deeply personal for Russian players,” agent Dan Milstein, who represents a majority of the Russian players in the NHL, told ESPN. “I will be working closely with everyone involved to find a solution here. We will fight until the end. This is a very important issue for the players, and not including them is absolutely unfair.”
The KHL issue
One concern for the NHL is its relationship with the Kontinental Hockey League, a league that includes teams from several countries, but the large majority of them are based in Russia. The KHL, which is widely considered the second-best hockey league in the world, has been on good terms with the NHL. The NHL had been considering sending a team to Russia for exhibition games, or reintroducing a KHL/NHL crossover event. Those discussions are on indefinite hold, with the league ending all business relations with Russia.
The KHL and NHL had a “memorandum of understanding” that required each league to respect each other’s player contracts. No KHL team has violated that memorandum, but many NHL executives wondered whether that might change. “I want to see what happens this current season,” Daly told ESPN in August. “I don’t really know one way or the other yet.”
One NHL executive presented this scenario: “If a player isn’t happy with his playing time, or down to the AHL, who’s to say he doesn’t just bolt home and sign a contract over there? That’s a real possibility now.”
One player in particular who was caught up in the geopolitical maelstrom: Flyers prospect Ivan Fedotov, who was expected to compete for Philadelphia’s backup goaltending position this season. Fedotov played last season for the KHL’s CSKA Moscow, which is considered an extension of the Russian Army. Fedotov signed a contract with the Flyers in May, and two months later, while skating at a rink in St. Petersburg, he was arrested by a SWAT team and sent to a military base in Severomorsk. All men ages 18-27 in Russia must serve in the military unless they have an official exemption, which is usually university studies. Fedotov was detained on grounds of military evasion.
“This type of snatching and sending young men to arctic bases has been used as retaliation against opposition figures in Russia,” Washington Post Russia correspondent Mary Ilyushina explained to ESPN. “In this case, it may not have to do with opposition but rather abandoning a Russia club for an American one.”
Fedotov hired a military lawyer, who reported that Fedotov was hospitalized after receiving “some kind of injections.” Fedotov has since been transferred to another base. His legal team dropped his appeal for the charges of evasion, and according to sources, he is hopeful that after serving a year in the military he will be released and allowed to come to the United States to begin his NHL career.
This is a case the league is following closely, as it could be the first example of the NHL and KHL memorandum being violated. Considering CSKA Moscow’s relationship with the military, it’s possible Fedotov could be required to play for CSKA Moscow.
One general manager said he’s not as concerned for well-established veterans, but more so for the prospects and younger players in the league. “They seem more susceptible to getting caught up with military service, et cetera,” the GM said. “And of course there is now the real concern — one that we used to have for years, but had gone away of late — about getting those guys over here and signing contracts. “
The draft and Russian prospects
Many in the scouting community predicted that Russians would be shut out of the first round of the 2022 NHL draft for the first time since 2005. However, three Russian players were selected in the first round in July: Pavel Mintyukov (Anaheim Ducks, No. 10), Ivan Miroshnichenko (Washington Capitals, No. 20) and Danila Yurov (Minnesota Wild, No. 24). It’s much easier for NHL teams to draft players already playing in North America, like Minyukov and Yurov, who were in the Ontario Hockey League.
Miroshnichenko is more of a risk. He was once projected as a lottery pick, but dropped because he was still in Russia playing in the second division last season and because he will miss the 2022-23 season after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Capitals viewed his draft selection as a gamble, but the upside was too much to pass up.
Matvei Michkov is considered a top-three pick in the 2023 draft, and his stock will be interesting to monitor as he plays this season for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL. Several NHL teams have pulled scouts from Russia, but it’s hard to gauge how many organizations have a Russian presence as some teams may have consultants on payroll. Either way, Michkov will go the entire season with very few people from NHL organizations having eyes on him. Scouts say it helps that Michkov has played in well-attended tournaments over the past two years, such as the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup and the 2021 world juniors in Texas.
Michkov is under contract with the KHL through the 2025-26 season. “At those tournaments he looked like a world-class talent, someone worthy of going top-two, -three of the draft,” one veteran amateur scout said. “But I wouldn’t be shocked if there’s a precipitous drop simply because of the circumstance.”