Monday, February 28, 2022

I hope Alex Ovechkin kept his money in an American bank — perhaps Capital One, which pays money for the right to have its name on the building where the Russian superstar earns that dough.

Ovechkin might have a hard time getting it out of a Russian bank, which may be more frozen than the ice he skates on.

The bill has come due for the Great 8 and “PutinTeam,” the social media campaign the Russian hockey star started five years ago to support his buddy, Vladimir Putin. Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine has turned Putin, never the most likable world leader, into even more of a pariah on the global stage — and has Ovechkin in the unenviable position of trying to defend his friendship with the Russian dictator.

Ovechkin has skated on thin ice for years with his very public alliance with Putin, and the ice has gotten thinner as tensions have grown between Russia and the United States.

“Today, I want to announce a social movement in the name of PutinTeam. Be a part of this team — to me it’s a privilege, it’s like the feeling of when you put on the jersey of the Russian team, knowing that the whole country is rooting for you,” Ovechkin wrote after posting a photo of him embracing Putin, like he was celebrating a goal.

This was three years after Putin annexed Crimea, prompting this response from then-President Obama: “The world is watching with grave concern as Russia has positioned its military in a way that could lead to further incursions into southern and eastern Ukraine.”

Go PutinTeam.

Being Putin’s friend was already tough for a businessman-athlete-capitalist like Ovechkin. Now it’s likely impossible, especially if your fortune is being made not just in America, but in the capital of the free world, just a few blocks away from where President Biden is, for all intents and purposes, at war with PutinTeam.

“Please, no more war,” Ovechkin told reporters after a Washington Capitals practice Friday. “It doesn’t matter who is in the war — Russia, Ukraine, different countries — we have to live in peace.”

When he was asked whether he supports Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine this week, Ovechkin said, “I’m Russian, right? It’s not something I can control. It’s not in my hands. I hope it’s going to end soon and there’s going to be peace in both countries. I don’t control this one.”

But it does matter who is at war when one country invades another for no reason save for its fear of the influence of a neighboring free nation like Ukraine.

Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke the truth when he said, “We should call things by their names. Russia’s criminal actions against Ukraine have signs of genocide. Russia (is) on the path of evil.”

I get that it is a tough spot for Ovechkin, who still has family in Russia. But does the Russian sports hero who went along with PutinTeam really have anything to fear from his friend? If so, then he should have done a better job of picking his friends.

Do you know who is not Ovechkin’s friend? Hall of Fame goaltender Dominik Hasek, who was born and raised in Czechoslovakia and who had nothing but contempt for Ovechkin’s response.

“Not only an alibist, a chicken s—t, but also a liar!” Hasek tweeted about Ovechkin. “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.”

You can understand if this is personal to Hasek.

He grew up in a Soviet-occupied country that, like Ukraine, was overrun by Soviet tanks when he was a child. He was forced to play for the Czech Republic Army hockey team and told the story to Sports Illustrated in 1998 of the joy he felt when the revolution there toppled the Soviet-controlled regime.

Hasek said he had been banished to two weeks of military duty for insubordination when the country embraced freedom. He and four army teammates drove to Prague to watch it happen. “A revolution doesn’t happen too many times in your life,” Hasek said. “I wanted to see a revolution.”

Ovechkin was five years old when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Hasek called for the league to suspend the contracts of all Russian players.

“Every athlete represents not only himself and his club, but also his country and its values and actions,” he wrote. “That is a fact. If the NHL does not do so, it has indirect co-responsibility for the dead in Ukraine.”

That may seem a bit extreme. But this is an unprecedented moment in American sports. There has never been a professional athlete in team sports like Ovechkin in this country who has been so connected to America’s enemies. Never.

This is not an athlete who defected. Ovechkin has embraced the strongman back home.

Ovechkin and the wave of Russian players who came into the NHL starting 30 years ago have all played and risen to stardom in America in the post-Cold War era.

With the invasion of Ukraine, the world has entered a new Cold War era. Ovechkin’s future in the NHL and other Russian players could be at risk

You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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