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Will Alex Ovechkin face Putin backlash in America?

Greg Wyshynski
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In New York’s East Village, steps away from a 24-hour Ukrainian diner that serves up pierogi as addictive as crack rock, is something a little less comforting: a memorial, adorned with the blue and gold flag of my ancestors, created in February to mourn those who died in the nation’s internal conflicts earlier this year. 

(Yes, I’m Ukrainian. I’m only Polish for comedic effect.)

It saddens me. It also makes me disappointed, in myself, for not giving this humanitarian crisis more attention, considering my heritage. But then again, I’m an American – we could barely give Ferguson airtime until the reporters started getting thrown out of McDonald’s.

The information’s out there – I’d recommend these looks at the Russia/Ukraine conflict from The New Republic and Forbes – but outside of the fallout from the Malaysian airline crash, the last time Americans collectively raised their hackles over Vladimir Putin was when he ordered canine hit squads in Sochi.

Because, just like in disaster movies, we care more about the dogs than we do the humans.

Which is why, despite backing Putin and buying wholesale into the Russian propaganda that this a war on “fascism,” I don’t expect Alex Ovechkin to get much flack for the Instagram image pictured here, in which the Washington Capitals star asks the world to “Save Children From Fascism.”

As Peter Hassett of Russian Machine Never Breaks wrote in his detailed breakdown of the issue last week:

It sounds like an implicit message of support for the rebels of Ukrainian. Those rebels, allegedly been funded and armed by the Kremlin, have been fighting against the Ukranian government in an ever-escalating war. As of this morning, there are reports that as many as a thousand Russian soldiers have now joined that war. That, it seems, is how Russia intends to save children from fascism.”

Rare is the political statement from a pro athlete; rarer is one from the "logo on the front" culture of the hockey world. 

After all, aren’t we supposed to have a separation of church and hockey? Wasn’t that the “shut up and play” advice handed to Tim Thomas after skipping the Bruins' visit to the White House? Snubbing President Obama to make a statement about his beliefs was “Disgraceful. Misguided. Inexcusable.” He was “ruining hockey” with his politics.

Should Ovechkin be pressed on this, like Thomas was for his Tea Party dogma? Of course. Will he? Of course not.

That speaks to Thomas having turned his back on a symbolic political event while Ovechkin hasn’t outright disrespected the U.S. government. Thomas all but burned the flag in the eyes of many; Ovechkin is just rasing his nation's.

That speaks to the complexity of the issue at hand, where “save the children” and “no war” messages are being propagated by a nation that is a catalyst for violence in another nation. Is what Ovechkin doing any different than an athlete in the U.S. supporting a divisive American war effort?

That also speaks to the general apathy our populace and media have for foreign policy issues that aren’t directly relatable to the homeland – we’ll ask every Russian player about gay rights heading into the Olympics, but how many will be asked about Putin’s aggressions against Ukraine?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Ovechkin’s politics isn’t how they play in the U.S. but rather how Russians believe they’ll play in the U.S.

Russian Machine Never Breaks had a translation from Sport-Express that detailed an annual rite of the season: The KHL’s president and other Russian hockey officials actively speculating on Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin returning to play in their homeland. From Hockey Hall of Famer-turned-Russian political powerbroker Slava Fetisov:

Medvedev mentioned the possibility of Ovechkin and Malkin returning to the KHL: “Expect surprises the next season.” Is it realistic, considering the political situation?

Slava Fetisov: “This is not an easy situation. Although I never imagined that athletes would be discriminated against during political confrontations. But yesterday I talked to Sasha Ovechkin. He had a picture taken holding a sign “Save children from fascism” and right away he got a lot of retweets as if he were supporting Putin.

The way I understand, fascism was denounced by modern humanity a long time ago. As a fact. How can you connect one to another? I am beginning to be concerned how Ovechkin will be received in America. Although I believe that sport is the only thing that can unite people today. Our guys from the NHL are ambassadors promoting our way of life.

Everybody portrays Russia as the aggressor. But even in hockey, an aggressive sport, we have always played in a more artistic way than anybody else.

I think Malkin and Ovechkin should play in the NHL. There is a conversation. But I don’t know how realistic it would be to take all our stars back from there.”

So Fetisov doesn’t believe Malkin and Ovechkin should play in the KHL, but he’s “concerned” that Ovechkin could be ostracized in the U.S. 

I doubt it. At least it won't be the point where he'd flee to Russia to avoid the scrutiny.  If only we cared that much about the other side of the world, or what a Russian athlete thinks of his “local” politics.

Now, if he had Tweeted the photo standing next to Khloe Kardashian doing the ice bucket challenge and it was stolen from his iCloud account …

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