Every sport has the power to send a strong message to Russia. And a responsibility
So let’s start at home.
Start, in fact, with Ilya Mikheyev and Ilya Lyubushkin, who was just added to the Maple Leafs roster last week via trade. Let’s say both Russian nationals are now suspended indefinitely for Monday night’s game in Washington as part of an NHL-wide decision to do its part in punishing Moscow for the brutal invasion of Ukraine.
In this hypothetical scenario, the Capitals will take an even bigger hit, losing forwards Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenceman Dmitry Orlov and goaltender Ilya Samsonov for the indefinite future.
Too extreme an action for your tastes? The more extreme, the more likely it is to get Mother Russia’s attention. But fair enough.
The Leafs have three significant Russian youngsters not at the NHL level yet in Rodion Amirov, Dmitri Ovchinnikov and Mikhail Abramov. Bar them and all NHL farmhands and draftees from competing in North America? Still too much to contribute to the Ukrainian cause?
Then how about the CHL Top Prospects Game on March 23, which is scheduled to include undrafted Russians Maxim Barbashev, Ruslan Gazizov and Pavel Mintyukov, NHL Central Scouting’s No. 5 prospect? Would removing their ability to showcase themselves be a suitable punishment from the hockey community to say it will not stand for Russia bombing apartment buildings and hospitals in Kyiv?
Hockey is one of the most exposed North American-based sports in terms of Russian content. This season, 45 Russians have dressed for NHL games — more than the NBA, Major League Baseball, NFL, CFL and Major League Soccer combined.
These are questions the NHL didn’t have to grapple with to the same extent back in 1979, when Moscow also initiated a military assault on an independent nation. Then it was Afghanistan, and then the NHL didn’t employ any Soviet nationals. So it was left to the international sports community to act, and the result was a boycott involving more than 65 nations — including Canada — of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.
The Soviets responded by initiating an Iron Curtain boycott of the Los Angeles Games four years later, and didn’t leave Afghanistan until 1989.
In another instance, many would argue the sanctions aimed at South Africa for its appalling apartheid policies did contribute over the decades to isolating Pretoria as an international pariah, and eventually to South Africa ridding itself of racial segregation. It all started with South Africa getting booted out of the Olympics in 1964, and ultimately included suspension from international track and field events, Davis Cup tennis and international cricket and rugby.
With Ukraine, the international sports world has already started to act. Soccer has responded swiftly. Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic have said they won’t travel to Moscow to play World Cup qualifying matches, while France has called for the outright expulsion of Russia from this year’s championship in Qatar. FIFA, rather gutlessly, has so far only said Russia must play in neutral sites wearing Football Union of Russia (RFU) jerseys with no flags or anthems.
UEFA has shifted this year’s Champions League final to Paris from St. Petersburg. The German club FC Schalke 04 said it will remove the logo of Gazprom, the giant Russian oil company, from its uniform. Formula One racing, meanwhile, has cancelled the Russian Grand Prix, scheduled for Sept. 25. One of its teams has stripped its cars of a Russian sponsor and Russian flags, and is instead racing an all-white vehicle.
Every sport is a little different. Professional tennis has five Russian women among its top 50 players. Russian star Daniil Medvedev, meanwhile, will become the No. 1 men’s player in the world on Monday, while Andrey Rublev won in Dubai this past weekend.
Should Tennis Canada, home to the National Bank Open for men and women next summer, disinvite Russian players to show support for the Ukrainian cause? Should Wimbledon?
For Monday night’s Leafs-Caps game, longtime NHL observer and writer Slava Malamud tweeted: “It would be a great gesture by (the Leafs) to request (the Capitals) forego the Canadian national anthem in favour of Ukraine’s” in recognition of Canada’s large Ukrainian community.
Goaltending legend Dominik Hasek, meanwhile, tweeted on the weekend that the NHL “must immediately suspend contracts for all Russian players! Every athlete represents not only himself and his club, but also his country and its values and actions. That is a fact. If the NHL does not do so, it has indirect co-responsibility for the dead in Ukraine.”
The Swiss and Latvian hockey federations have called for Russia to be excluded from international hockey entirely. But still nothing so far from the NHL, which hopes to hold a World Cup involving Russia in 2026, or Hockey Canada.
Should it be the responsibility of national sports federations to take action against Russia? Or should it be the leagues, individual clubs or individual athletes?