Sports world punishes Putin Hopefully sanctions against Russia have an effect on ruthless dictator

Vladimir Putin has never been shy about trying to weaponize sports. Whether it’s the countless doping scandals involving his country or his own dubious achievements — despite below-average skills he’s comically allowed to score at will whenever he laces up his skates — the Russian president has always utilized a “win at all costs” mentality.

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Opinion

Vladimir Putin has never been shy about trying to weaponize sports. Whether it’s the countless doping scandals involving his country or his own dubious achievements — despite below-average skills he’s comically allowed to score at will whenever he laces up his skates — the Russian president has always utilized a “win at all costs” mentality.

Russian President Vladimir Putin playing hockey at Bolshoi Arena in the Black sea resort of Sochi, Russia in 2019. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

On Monday, the sports world sent a loud and clear message of its own following Putin’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine. And the decision by multiple leagues and federations to immediately sever ties with Russia must be applauded.

These are more than simply symbolic empty gestures. They are bound to leave a mark on a brutal dictator who hates losing — whether that’s on the battlefield or the playing field. Swift, decisive action was needed. And swift, decisive action was taken.

Let’s start with hockey, where both the NHL and the IIHF no doubt got Putin’s attention and stung his pride, given his noted affinity for the game.

“The National Hockey League condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and urges a peaceful resolution as quickly as possible,” a statement released by the league began. “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.”

“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.”
– Statement released by the NHL

Around the same time, the IIHF was convening for an emergency meeting, voting to ban Russia and Belarus, who are supporting the invasion, from participating in all upcoming tournaments. That included the men’s world championship in May, the re-scheduled World Juniors in August, and the women’s worlds in September.

That, folks, is a blistering slap shot to Putin’s shins, followed by a cross-check and a stinky, gloved face-wash for good measure. Still, there will be some who argue this doesn’t go far enough, such as Hall of Fame goaltender Dominik Hasek who launched a grenade on his Twitter account over the weekend.

Former Buffalo Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek, of The Czech Republic. (AP Photo/The Buffalo News, Harry Scull, Jr.)

“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,” said Hasek, a six-time Vezina Trophy winner who retired in 2008.

With respect to the Czech-born “Dominator,” such a sweeping sanction would be unjust, not to mention feeding right into Putin’s greedy little hands. Don’t think for a second he wouldn’t love to have all these talents playing in Mother Russia, rather than making millions and chasing championships over here in North America.

“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.”
– Dominik Hasek

To paint every player with the same broad brush is also unfair. By my count, there are 50 Russian players who have suited up in the NHL this year, including some of the brightest stars such as Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Kirill Kaprizov, Nikita Kucherov, Artemi Panarin and Andrei Vasilevskiy. We don’t know how the majority of them truly feel. Aside from Ovechkin, few have been asked for their thoughts on what’s happening back home. That includes Evgeny Svechnikov, who plays for the Winnipeg Jets.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES
Winnipeg Jets forward Evgeny Svechnikov.

I’m not sure it’s right to put these athletes on the spot over complex issues they have zero power to control. Either they come out and condemn what is happening, a move likely to put family members still in Russia in immediate peril. Or they don’t, which could be unfairly taken as a sign of support.

Ovechkin was fair game in my eyes because he’s openly supported Putin in the past. Not surprisingly, he treaded rather carefully while speaking with scribes the other day, although he did say “No more war” which was a positive.

Prominent hockey agent Dan Milstein spoke out Monday, saying several of his Russian clients have received legitimate threats both in person and on social media. He’s asked both the NHL and the NHLPA to step up security, believing they may be targets.

“We 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,” the NHL statement read.

That’s an important distinction to make. Ovechkin is trying to win a Stanley Cup for the Washington Capitals, not the Kremlin. There’s no reason for the NHL to go any further. But when it comes to competing for national pride, it’s the right call to send Russia to the showers.

So, kudos to the IIHF, along with the WCF which also decided Monday to punt Russia from the field for upcoming world curling championships, beginning with the women’s event beginning March 19 in Prince George.

“The World Curling Federation strongly condemns the military action undertaken by the Russian government in their invasion of Ukraine and continues to hope for a swift and peaceful resolution to the situation,” the WCF said in a statement.

It was a similar story on the pitch, both FIFA and UEFA announced Monday that Russian’s national teams and clubs were suspended from international soccer competition “until further notice.”

“Football is fully united here and in full solidarity with all the people affected in Ukraine,” they said. “Both presidents hope that the situation in Ukraine will improve significantly and rapidly so that football can again be a vector for unity and peace amongst people.”

The International Olympic Committee also called on sports bodies to exclude Russian athletes and officials from international events, including soccer’s World Cup, in order to “protect the integrity of global sports competitions and for the safety of all the participants.”

You know you’ve really crossed a line when the IOC — one of the most corrupt bodies in the world — tells you to rein it in.

Whether any of this has a tangible impact on the atrocities happening in Ukraine remains to be seen. But the sports world presenting a united front and putting Putin directly in the crosshairs is an important step in taking down a tyrant.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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Updated on Monday, February 28, 2022 7:10 PM CST: Fixes typo.

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