In Russia, ice hockey is not just any sport, on the contrary, it is close to being considered the national sport, not for nothing during the time of the Soviet Union it maintained a world domain in all professional categories of the discipline.
But among all the athletes who have put on ice skates and wielded a hockey stick, one stands out, Alexander Ovechkin, arguably the best living Russian player and many are convinced that in history.
Ovechkin has always been a huge fan of President Vladimir Putin, and being considered almost a national hero in Russia, his endorsement has always earned the controversial Russian president a significant part of his popularity.
Such has been Ovechkin’s support for his president that He was the pioneer of something called the “PutinTeam”, which brought together Russian athletes and personalities to support the president and fly the flags of Russian pride.
“I have never hidden my attitude towards our president, always supporting him”, wrote the Muscovite and captain of the Washington Capitals of the NHL (The National Hockey League of the United States) in 2017, three years after Russia declared Crimea as part of its territory.
That is why his recent statements about the war in Ukraine are not only surprising, but also represent a severe blow to Putin’s egowho sees as a former ally today apparently turns his back on him, or at least is not willing to echo the narrative with which Russia has tried to disguise its warlike incursion into Ukraine.
“Well, he is my president”Ovechkin, 36, said at a news conference a few days ago. “But as I said, I am not in politics. I’m an athlete and you know, like I said, I hope it’s all going to be done soon. It’s a tough situation right now for both sides and everything. Everything, I hope, will end. I’m not in control of the situation.”
So far his words, somewhat uncomfortable, exhibit the moderation typical of athletes who out of nowhere are left in the middle of the conflicts that their countries start and are asked to express an opinion. But Ovechkin finished: “Please, no more war.”
The statement immediately caused controversy, with reactions like that of the Czech goalkeeper Dominik Hasek on Twitter, another sports legend, who called the Russian a “coward” and a “liar” and called on the NHL to suspend all Russian player contracts.
But Ovechkin’s lukewarm statement is the sign of something deeper and has several readings. One that is impossible to miss is his labeling of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine as a “war.”
Calling the invasion a “war” is today a journalistic crime in Russia, because the Putin regime rejects this denomination that contradicts the narrative of the liberation of the Ukrainian people from the clutches of Nazism that Russia intends to impose.
That simple call “no to war, please” has already been expressed by other Russian athletes, such as the rising tennis player Andrew Rublev who wrote this cry on social networks, and his defiant words are not lacking in courage.
But let it be done by a full-fledged national star like Ovechkin, the “Big Eight”, the charming and enthusiastic golden boy of the Great Russian Sport, perhaps the purest goalscorer in hockey history, now closing in on the previously inviolable goalscoring record. by Wayne Gretzky, is something else entirely.
Especially if we take into account that hockey is the sport that Putin has used politically in his favor. Building his image as an active, athletic and charismatic leader, the Russian president has been seen on the ice on several occasions, playing matches against professionals where he scores a ridiculous number of goals.
“As Putin’s favorite athlete, it is significant that Ovechkin did not come out and endorse Putin’s war,” says Jack Todd, hockey writer for the Montreal Gazettequoted by Guardian. “It is the first sign of distance between Putin and one of his most enthusiastic supporters,” add.
Todd argues that Ovechkin needs to do more, because he is in a unique position to be heard: “Given Ovechkin’s position as a hero of the Russian people, it would be difficult for Putin to retaliate against him, especially now that everything is falling apart.”.
On Monday, the NHL condemned the Ukraine invasion and urged “a peaceful resolution as quickly as possible.” The league added that it is cutting ties with its business partners in Russia, while acknowledging that its players “and their families are being placed in an extremely difficult position.”
The influence of celebrities, athletes, and personalities of popular culture in the way of thinking of citizens is not less: there are more people attentive to their lives than to politics.
Perhaps a few more statements from PutinTeam capital calling Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine “war” could popularize a word that is now banned by the Putin regime.