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Alex Ovechkin skates in Canada’s dense Ukrainian enclave

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Hockey star Alex Ovechkin, center among Russia’s professional athletes of public anger over the war in Ukraine, is set to play in front of the most unsympathetic crowd yet.

Ovechkin, a prominent supporter of President Vladimir V. Putin, and his Washington Capitals teammates will face the Oilers on Wednesday night in Edmonton, Alta., home to one of the largest concentrations of the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada.

Andriy Tovstiuk of Edmonton works with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress to organize fundraisers, rallies, demonstrations and humanitarian relief efforts in Alberta for Ukraine. He will be at Wednesday’s game at Rogers Place.

“I think we’re going to be loud, we’re going to be excited,” said Tovstiuk, whose organization works with both the Oilers and Calgary Flames, who lost to the Capitals 5-4 on Tuesday to raise funds for Ukraine through its 50-50 raffles, which often top $1 million. “But we all really want to focus on supporting Ukraine and really supporting everything that’s going on right now.

“But who knows what will happen? It’s an emotional time for everyone, and we really encourage everyone to use this as a rallying point for Ukraine.

Ovechkin is one of Russia’s most famous athletes, and his friendship with Putin, who has a singular passion for ice hockey, is widely known. The friendship was unwavering after Putin invaded and annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, with Ovechkin launching an online social movement in 2017 in support of Putin winning the 2018 Russian elections.

Edmonton is home to 160,000 people of Ukrainian descent and 370,000 in Alberta, according to the 2016 Canadian census. About 1.4 million people of Ukrainian descent live in Canada, more than anywhere else outside Ukraine and of Russia.

Capitals officials, who have four Russian players on their roster, including Ovechkin, have discussed safety measures with their Oilers counterparts, but no one expects much beyond boos from fans at Rogers Place. The Oilers did not respond to requests for comment. The Capitals declined to speak officially.

Tim Shipton, executive vice president of the Oilers Entertainment Group, released a statement Monday: “The Edmonton Oilers stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. As we saw in Saturday’s home game, Oilers fans were very respectful in showing their support for Ukraine.

Viter, a Ukrainian folk choir, will sing the Ukrainian national anthem before the game. Tovstiuk and other UCC representatives encourage fans to wear the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag during the game. National flags, colors and ensigns, masked in bad taste, are allowed in the arena.

On Tuesday, ahead of their season opener in Alberta, the Capitals released a statement saying they “join the National Hockey League in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the loss of innocent lives.” The statement continued: “We call for and hope for a peaceful resolution as soon as possible. The Capitals also fully support our Russian players and their families abroad. We realize that they are put in a difficult situation and we are ready to offer our help to them and their families.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Ovechkin, who is one of the NHL’s biggest stars — two goals against the Flames on Tuesday tied him for third on the career goals list with Jaromir Jagr at 766 — got taunted and booed in road games. His image was even scorned in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday when he appeared in a tribute video for former Blue Jackets star Rick Nash.

Ovechkin held a press conference on February 25 in a bid to distance himself from Putin and support the Russian invasion. “I am not in politics. Like, I’m an athlete,” he said. He added, without mentioning Putin, “Please no more war.”

Instead of placating his critics, Ovechkin found himself under fire from supporters of the war in his home country and opponents of it in the rest of the world. This led to a backlash against Ovechkin’s social media accounts from Russian fans, and he was advised not to change his Instagram profile picture as it would not sit well in Russia.

That’s why Ovechkin’s profile picture, showing him with Putin, on his verified Instagram account, which has 1.6 million followers, remained on Wednesday afternoon. There was a plan to change the image to a symbol of world peace after the press conference, but since Ovechkin’s wife, two children and his parents are currently in Russia, it was decided that the photo of him and Putin would stay.

So far, Ovechkin and Flames defenseman Nikita Zadorov are the only Russian players to publicly mention the war. Zadorov posted an emoji of the Ukrainian flag and the words “No War” and “STOP IT!!!” on Instagram the day after the invasion.

According to player agent Dan Milstein, who represents dozens of Russian and Belarus players under NHL contract, his clients and their families are facing a barrage of abuse and slur on platforms like Instagram and Twitter.

“I’ve had wives of my players who have received very disturbing messages,” Milstein said. “The comments under the photos of children are Nazi baby, go back to Russia, we don’t need you here, go home, among other things.”

Milstein, who hails from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was the only NHL-related person who reportedly agreed to speak publicly about the article, with others citing fear of repercussions for associates or clients who have members of the family in Russia.

An NHL spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment from commissioner Gary Bettman. But the league is working with police departments in some of its 32 team cities to provide additional patrols around arenas and player homes.

Milstein said his Russian clients on NHL rosters want nothing to do with the war in Ukraine but fear the consequences of speaking out.

“Of course, they’re not only worried about their families, but they’re also extremely worried about what’s happening in Russia,” he said. “My clients don’t want war, my clients want world peace. My clients worry about everyone in Ukraine and Russia, everyone.

Russian and Belarusian players and teams have been barred from all international competitions by the International Ice Hockey Federation. They also face calls for sanctions from fans, some governments and even Hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky.

Gretzky, 61, and still one of hockey’s most influential people, called for Russia to be barred from the rescheduled 2022 World Junior Men’s Tournament shortly before the IIHF banned the country. He then explained on Toronto radio station Sportsnet 590 that he was thinking of the large number of people of Ukrainian descent who live in Canada, particularly in Edmonton, where the tournament will be played in August.

“I just couldn’t understand how we were going to welcome a country at war, to a city that has tons of Ukrainian family members who still live in Ukraine,” said Gretzky, who won four Stanley Cup championships. with Edmonton. . “And I got negative reactions from people who said, ‘Why punish Russian children?’

“It’s not about punishing Russian children. What about Ukrainian children who are killed daily? Ukrainian children aged 12 or 14 who go to war. I don’t want anyone to be punished. I just think it makes sense that we shouldn’t compete with this country right now, when they’re at war with an innocent country.

Last week, the NHL condemned the Russian invasion in an official statement and said it was immediately suspending business dealings in Russia. The league suspended ties with the Continental Hockey League, which is largely based in Russia, this week. NHL teams have been ordered to halt communications with Russian-based KHL teams and agents.

The NHL statement also clarified the league’s stance on Russian players, saying they “play in the NHL on behalf of their NHL clubs, not on behalf of Russia.”

Milstein and other player agents have said banning Russian players from the NHL makes no sense and would play into Putin’s hands, which continues the Russian government’s tradition of using elite athletes as propaganda.

Player agents also criticized the Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella group that oversees the three major junior leagues. The CHL recently announced the cancellation of this year’s Russia-Canada series. It is also considering banning Russian and Belarusian prospects from its import draft, which distributes teenage players from countries outside of North America to CHL teams. That, Milstein said, would essentially help Russia, which has concerns about athletes playing elsewhere.

While some critical observers of Ovechkin, like Hall of Fame keeper Dominik Hasek, would like him banned for his support of Putin, others think suspending him and other Russians wouldn’t help the situation. situation.

Slava Malamud, a teacher in Baltimore who served as a journalist for many years in Russia, is widely followed on social media as a fierce critic of Ovechkin. Although Malamud said he would have no problem with Ovechkin being kicked out of the NHL because of his support for Putin, he didn’t think punishing all Russian players would be fair.

“We don’t punish Russians because they are Russians,” he said. “You can’t help where you were born. But the players who explicitly supported Putin, in the first place Ovechkin, are aware of this. He’s stained by it. He did it very willingly.