One point of contention for those criticizing Alex Ovechkin amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that the Washington Capitals star’s Instagram profile picture has remained a photo of him posing with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But according to a report from The New York Times on Wednesday, Ovechkin has been advised against changing the photo “because it would not go over well in Russia,” reporter David Shoalts wrote. Ovechkin has 1.6 million Instagram followers, making him one of the most popular Russian athletes on the platform.
He considered changing it to a “symbol for world peace,” per Shoalts’ report, after his press conference — in which he said “please, no more war.” But the fear of potential backlash in Russia led to his advisers suggesting he keep the photo of Putin. Ovechkin’s family — his wife, two children and parents — currently live in Russia.
Since the war started two weeks ago, Ovechkin has been the top target in American professional sports due to his past support for Putin, including his social media campaign for the Russian president in 2017.
He is one of two Russian NHL players to publicly comment on the war. One day after the invasion, Calgary Flames defenseman Nikita Zadorov posted a Ukrainian flag emoji with the words “No war” and “STOP IT!!!” on Instagram.
That same day, Ovechkin answered questions during a press conference — urging for peace and an end to the conflict, but obfuscating when specifically asked if he still supports Putin.
“He‘s my president,” said Ovechkin. “But like I said, I’m not in politics. I’m an athlete. I hope everything is going to be done soon. It’s a hard situation right now for both sides.”
While most Russian players haven’t talked about their country’s invasion of Ukraine, a group of Russian NHLers did discuss releasing a joint statement about the war, according to TSN’s Rick Westhead. But the players couldn’t come to an agreement on what the statement should say, and the plan ended.
The Capitals are currently on a road trip in Western Canada, where most of the country’s 1.4 million people of Ukrainian origin live. Prior to the trip, the team released a statement “condemning” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but that didn’t quell the criticism from fans in Alberta, Canada, on Tuesday. Calgary Flames fans consistently booed Ovechkin when he carried the puck or when his name was mentioned by the public address announcer.
The impact on Ovechkin hasn’t just been from the fans. The star winger has also lost multiple sponsors. Equipment company CCM Hockey is ending endorsement deals with all Russian players, while MassMutual pulled its commercial with Ovechkin and teammate Nicklas Backstrom off the air. Even Hockey Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek wants him kicked out of the NHL for being a ‘liar” and “chicken s—-.”
NHL player agent Dan Milstein, who represents about 75% of the league’s Russian players, is concerned about the safety of Russian players amid the war. Milstein, who does not represent Ovechkin, said his clients are experiencing “disturbing levels” of harassment, including death threats.
Last week, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan confirmed the team is aware of the criticism Ovechkin — as well as the team’s other Russian players, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov and Ilya Samsonov — are receiving, adding that the organization is providing security for them.
“It’s hard for him,” MacLellan said. “We talk to him. He gets pressure from all sides — from North America, from Russia, from family, from a lot of different people, and he tries to sort it out.”