- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2022

Alex Ovechkin is expected to wait to address Russia’s military strike in Ukraine as the Washington Capitals star wasn’t made available to speak to local reporters before Thursday’s game against the New York Rangers. 

Ovechkin, born in Russia, has been a longtime supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2017, Ovechkin posted on Instagram that was he starting a “public movement” to back Putin called the “PutinTeam.” As of Thursday, Ovechkin’s profile picture on his Instagram account was a photo of him with Putin. 

Ovechkin’s support of Putin has led to criticism — and that backlash was renewed this week when Putin ordered a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ovechkin was a trending topic on Twitter before the Rangers game. The Washington Post reported Ovechkin will likely speak in the coming days and wants “further time” before speaking on the topic. 

In 2017, Ovechkin downplayed his endorsement of Putin, telling The Washington Post that he was “not a politic.” He said he didn’t want to cause a fight between Russia and the United States, where he’s lived at least part-time during his almost two decades with the Capitals.

This year, Ovechkin was set to the play for the Russian Olympic Committee — the country was technically banned from the Winter Games, though their athletes could still compete — in the recent Beijing Olympics. The plan was cut short, however, when the NHL announced that it was pulling its players because of COVID-19 concerns.

The choice for Ovechkin to delay in speaking to the media drew scrutiny on social media. 

“Nah nah…. You supported and campaigned for this man,” tweeted Akim Aliu, a former professional hockey player who briefly played in the NHL with the Calgary Flames. “Stand on it now. It’s not the time to hide.”

“Seeing a lot of ‘Ovechkin shouldn’t have to answer questions about Putin’ and that’s ridiculous,” ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski wrote. “He campaigned for him. He’s always tried to have it both ways by being a hype man for Putin but claiming it’s not political. It is absolutely fair to ask him about Ukraine.”

It is not publicly known how Ovechkin will choose to respond. Russian athletes have rarely criticized Putin, with perhaps the biggest exception being the Rangers’ Artemi Panarin — who said in a 2019 interview that Putin no longer understood what was right and wrong. Panarin did not speak to reporters before Thursday’s game. 

Last year, the 30-year-old took a weekslong absence from the Rangers after a former coach told a Russian newspaper that the star beat up an 18-year-old woman in 2011 — an accusation that the Rangers ripped as an “intimidation tactic” that was “being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events.” A month earlier, Panarin expressed support for jailed Putin critic Alexi Navalny.

Ovechkin’s family — his wife, kids and parents — reportedly live in Russia. 

“Ovechkin realizes even though he spends time and makes money in the U.S., the Russian security service knows where his grandma lives, knows what bank accounts he uses, knows where he keeps his dacha (country home),” Stephen Hall, the CIA’s former station chief in Moscow, told hockey journalist Rick Westhead.  “If he strays off the path, they can do what they want.”

Ovechkin is one of four Russians — joining center Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman Dmitry Orlov and goalie Ilya Samsonov — on the Capitals roster. The 36-year-old is having another great season as his 31 goals have helped him move up to fourth on the NHL’s all-time goal list. Ovechkin is currently six goals away from passing Jaromir Jagr (766) for third. 

In 2018, Putin was asked about Ovechkin winning a Stanley Cup with the Capitals, telling reporters he did not watch but congratulated him on the achievement. 

“Sasha and I are good friends,” Putin said in Russian, referring to Ovechkin. (Sasha is a Russian short form of Alexandra and Alexander.)

While Ovechkin has yet to comment about Russia’s invasion, others in the sports world have started to take action.

Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel says he will not race in the Russian Grand Prix in September, while the Union of European Football Associations will no longer host this year’s Champions League final in St. Petersburg in May and plans to make an announcement to that effect on Friday.

The International Olympic Committee said it “strongly condemns the breach of the Olympic Truce by the Russian government”  only days after the Beijing Olympics ended.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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