Russian NHL star Ovechkin takes heat over Putin support

In this file photo taken on May 29, 2012 Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) holds a certificate along with Russian national ice hockey team member Alexander Ovechkin. (AFP)

An innocent athlete placed in an impossible position?

Or a craven apologist for a brutal authoritarian strongman?

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has left National Hockey League superstar Alex Ovechkin struggling to defend his long record of support for Vladimir Putin as Russian athletes face mounting calls to be cast into the sporting wilderness.

The Stanley Cup-winning Washington Capitals captain -- a beloved figure amongst sports fans in the US capital where he has played for the past 17 years -- has found himself in the eye of a geopolitical storm since Russia launched its military action against Ukraine last week.

The 36-year-old Ovechkin has been an enthusiastic and vocal supporter of Putin over the years, even going so far as to launch a website called "PutinTeam" in 2017 which exhorted compatriots to unite behind the Russian leader.

"I have never hidden my attitude towards our president, always supporting him," Ovechkin wrote at the time.

"I am confident that there are many of us, supporting Vladimir Putin. So let's unite and show everyone a united and strong Russia!"

Ovechkin's Instagram feed carries several photos of Putin. As of Tuesday, Ovechkin's profile picture on the social media account is a photo of him with the Russian leader, an avid ice hockey fan.

But that full-throated endorsement of Putin has returned to haunt Ovechkin since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which has triggered global outrage and a cascade of economic, diplomatic and sporting sanctions.

Putin 'my president'

In an uncomfortable press conference last Friday, Ovechkin made a plea for "peace" but pointedly did not criticise Putin.

"Please, no more war," Ovechkin said. "It doesn't matter who is in the war -- Russia, Ukraine, different countries -- I think we have to live in peace and a great world."

Asked specifically if his support for Putin had diminished since the invasion, Ovechkin -- whose parents, wife and children are in Russia -- declined to be drawn.

"Well, he is my president. But how I said, I am not in politics. I am an athlete and I hope everything is going to be done soon."

"I'm Russian. It's something I can't control. It's not in my hands. I hope it's going to end soon."

But the pleas for peace failed to impress sections of the North American media.

Several commentators characterised Ovechkin's remarks as "mealy-mouthed", arguing that as one of the highest-profile Russian athletes in the world, his voice could influence change.

An editorial on the SB Nation sports website branded Ovechkin a "sycophantic coward".

"For Ovechkin to say he's helpless is a disingenuous attempt to downplay his importance," the editorial said.

"As the most famous Russian athlete playing in a western market, who is venerated at home for playing the nation's most popular sport, he could make a difference by speaking out -- he chose not to."

Scathing critique

Montreal Gazette writer Jack Todd called on Ovechkin to "lend his considerable strength to toppling the tyrant from his pedestal".

"It's simply not true that Ovechkin 'can’t do anything'," Todd wrote.

"This is a defining moment in many lives, Ovechkin's included. One day, he will be remembered as much for his actions now as for the goals he has scored."

Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Cathal Kelly said Ovechkin's public pleas for peace, and failure to condemn the invasion, amounted to little more than empty rhetoric.

"He wasn't calling on anyone to do anything," Kelly wrote.

"He was speaking of war the way one might the weather -- as something that just sort of happens and, hopefully, blows over in a few days."

Perhaps the most scathing critique of Ovechkin, however, came from Czech great Dominik Hasek.

The 57-year-old Hall of Famer accused Ovechkin of cowardice by not condemning Putin's actions in Ukraine, disparaging the Russian as "chicken shit" in a series of posts on Twitter.

"Every adult in Europe knows well that Putin is a mad killer and that Russia is waging an offensive war against the free country and its people," Hasek wrote.

Ovechkin's supporters however have pointed out that any criticism of Putin would be fraught with risk for an athlete who still has family members in Russia. Human rights groups have accused Russian authorities of waging a brutal crackdown on anyone publicly criticising the conflict.

Even SB Nation acknowledged that Ovechkin, and his family members in Russia, could potentially face repercussions if he were to speak out.

In a separate comment above its editorial about Ovechkin, the website noted there was "undoubtedly a tremendous risk to Ovechkin's family by asking him to speak out."

But the site added: "Just as there has been tremendous risk to anyone who has spoken out against Putin's regime, including those in political exile."

The "damned-if-you, damned-if-you-don't" nature of Ovechkin's position gained sympathy from the NHL, which appeared to reject calls from Hasek and other sports bodies to ban Russian athletes from playing in the league.

The NHL said Monday it was suspending its business links with Russia, while simultaneously offering support to its contingent of players from Russia.

"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," the league said.

"We understand they and their families are being placed in an extremely difficult position."