Russian President Vladimir Putin’s love of the bravado and machismo of hockey is well known. He personally took in games at the 2014 Winter Olympics, glowering when the star-studded Russian team was bounced, and was in the locker room celebrating when Russia won the Ice Hockey World Championships in May. Putin often talks of turning Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, widely considered the second best league in the world behind the National Hockey League, into the world’s best.
Now, it’s Putin’s bravado and machismo that are threatening to destroy the KHL. In the past, he’s offered star players like Ilya Kovalchuk big contracts to lure them away from America and Canada. But because of Russia’s economic problems stemming from Putin’s action in Ukraine and low oil prices, some of the league’s 22 teams can’t pay their players or coaches. Putin’s dreams of growing the league internationally are collapsing.
Two teams — Lev Praha and Spartak Moscow — bowed out before the 2014-2015 season started. Now, the collapse of the ruble, the weight of Western economic sanctions because of Moscow’s meddling in Ukraine, and the sagging price of oil have the entire league on the verge of folding.
KHL contracts are paid in rubles, not dollars, so players have seen the value of their paychecks decrease dramatically over the last month; some players and coaches have not been paid in months, leading to open revolt from players like Ilari Melart, a Finn who plays for the club Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk, who told a Finnish paper he’s not “in Siberia for charity.” There are concerns that sponsors like Gazprom and Rosneft, under financial pressure due to sanctions and low energy prices, could end their support for teams. Right now three teams — Slovan Bratislava, Atlant Moscow Oblast and Dinamo Riga — are believed to be close to collapse, according to recent reports in Canada’s Globe and Mail. If these teams fold, the KHL would be reduced 19 teams.
Dmitry Chernyshenko, who was recently appointed president of the KHL, urged caution after an emergency meeting earlier this month.
“The league’s financial situation is stable, and we’re looking calmly at the current economic situation,” Chernyshenko, a former head of the Sochi Olympics organizing committee, said according, to the Associated Press. “The season will be finished as planned.”
A team has had to sit out a KHL season before, but not for economic reasons. In 2011, a plane carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team crashed, killing 43 people and forcing the team to cancel the season.
The collapse of the KHL would be a tough pill for Putin to swallow. He has long sought to cultivate relationships with his country’s hockey stars and has had some success luring some home to play in the KHL. For their part, Russian players in the NHL have returned the love.
Putin and Russian hockey players are a good match. Hockey players are generally regarded as tough, unrelenting, and willing to play through pain. The tiger-hunting, bare-chested, judo-chopping Putin appears to think of himself in much the same way. Both also hold deep resentments against the West. In Putin’s case, it’s for the treatment of Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For hockey stars, it’s perceived prejudice from the Western hockey establishment.
Players have channeled their resentment into a bromance with Putin. In recent months, this generation’s Russian stars like the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin have expressed support for the Russian president’s actions in Ukraine.
Ovechkin, who is set to play in the NHL’s signature outdoor Winter Classic at Nationals Park on New Year’s Day, posted a picture of himself on Instagram holding a placard that said #savechildrenfromfascism, a common Russian justification for its actions in Ukraine. Ovie has even made a cameo as a little green man in a mural that shows him skating over Ukraine under text that reads “We returned what was ours.”
The Capitals declined to comment. The Penguins did not return a call for comment.
Putin’s relationship with the NHL’s biggest Russian stars wasn’t always so rosy.
It hit a low point last year at the Olympics in Sochi. Putin had set the stage for a Russian hockey victory, but the loaded Russian squad lost in the quarterfinal game and failed to medal. Putin was visibly distraught, holding his head in his hands as the Russians were eliminated by Finland. Putin also cringed as the United States beat Russia in a shootout that made a star out of the St. Louis Blues’ T.J. Oshie.
It didn’t take long for the relationship between Putin and his hockey stars to improve. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine galvanized the Russian squad. In May, they atoned for their Olympic shame by winning the Ice Hockey World Championships. This contest doesn’t typically attract NHL stars, but both Malkin and Ovechkin played. Putin celebrated by drinking out of the championship cup handed to him by Ovechkin in the Russian locker room.
Russia’s NHL players soon began supporting Putin on social media. In October, Ovechkin wished Putin a happy birthday on Twitter and Instagram. He and Malkin have also posed with iPhone cases featuring Putin in full Russian hockey gear, while Malkin was photographed alongside a BMW sporting a sweet airbrush painting of Putin on its hood and with his arm around a figure of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
When asked about his pro-Russia posts earlier this year, Ovie dismissed them as anti-war, not anti-Ukraine.
“I don’t try to make a statement,” Ovechkin said then. “Right now, as a Russian, I have lots of friends from Ukraine. I just don’t want a war. Nobody wants a war. Especially when people are so close. It’s hard to see, especially when you live so close to Ukraine. It’s hard and it’s dangerous. People die.”
Other Russian NHL players have also expressed support for the Russian president. The Montreal Canadiens’ Sergei Gonchar posed with Malkin and a few others wearing t-shirts that showed Putin in full combat gear. Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov also posted a photo of him in a t-shirt with a picture of Putin and the phrase, “Crimea is ours.”
Some of these posts were deleted after NHL reporters began to ask questions about them. Fortunately, they were collected here.
Matthew Babiak, the Canadian managing editor of Euromaidan Press, told Foreign Policy that Russian players’ support of Putin reflect an underlying resentment by Russia of Canadian attitudes toward European and Russian hockey players.
“We’re at a weird apex here where we’ve finally gotten past the European stigma in hockey, not just politically and keeping it ‘our game’ – which still persists in junior [leagues] where they … give ice to Canadian kids – but also in terms of play style where the ‘soft Russian’ or ‘soft European’ is becoming a bit of an antiquated stereotype,” Babiak said.
Ovechkin’s frantic pace of play did a lot to dispel these beliefs. But prejudice against players from outside of the Canada persists. Don Cherry, the flamboyant host of Hockey Night in Canada best known for his outrageous suits, long refused to import players to his junior hockey team. Mike Smith, who was fired as the general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2003, was referred to by disgruntled fans as “Mike Smithov” for his decision to draft European players; there are rumors that it led to his firing.
“Everything from [Russia’s] side of the pond has really been trying to compete with the West, and now politics may get involved,” Babiak said.
Photo Credit: AFP/Stringer