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CHL's reported decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players from draft is ill-conceived theatre

"All these kids want to do is play hockey, and forcing them to stay home is exactly what Russia wants."
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The CHL will reportedly move to ban Russian and Belarusian players from this year's import draft.

In the wake of Russia’s shocking invasion of Ukraine, multiple sporting bodies have announced sanctions on Russia, as well as Belarus, which has supported the invasion.

FIFA barred Russia from the 2022 World Cup, the Russian F1 Grand Prix was canceled, and Russia and Belarus have faced sanctions in multiple international competitions in everything from volleyball and figure skating to chess and badminton.

These decisions are all understandable. As much as sports feign neutrality, sports are inherently political, particularly when athletes are representing their country in international competition. A win for such an athlete doesn’t just bring glory to themselves but also to their country — after all, a gold medal in the Olympics is followed by the anthem of the athlete’s home country as their flag is raised into the air.

There’s a difference between an athlete representing their country, however, and an individual athlete who isn’t representing their country.

A Russian player, like the Vancouver Canucks’ Vasily Podkolzin, who is from Russia, or prospect Danila Klimovich from Belarus, do not have anything to do with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and they do not represent Russia or Belarus when they play for the Canucks. Punishing them for the actions of Vladimir Putin is folly.

But that’s exactly what the Canadian Hockey League — the CHL, which represents the WHL, OHL, and QMJHL — will be doing, according to NHL agent Dan Milstein.

According to Milstein, who represents multiple Russian and Belarusian players, including Klimovich and stars like Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy, the CHL will ban Russian and Belarusian teenagers from the upcoming CHL import draft.

“I am Ukrainian born and want peace,” said Milstein. “I do not believe banning teenagers for something they do not control is the answer.”

Banning teenagers from the CHL import draft is just performative theatre. It does nothing to actually put pressure on Russia like other sanctions but instead punishes individual players, many of whom are eager to leave Russia and Belarus and come to Canada. 

In fact, removing an option for elite young hockey players to leave Russia is exactly what Putin and many of the oligarchs who own KHL teams have wanted for years. This move will force players to stay in Russia and play on KHL farm teams under Russian control. 

What exactly is this supposed to accomplish? Who is actually being punished by this decision? It isn’t Putin or the oligarchs behind him. It’s only the players — 16 and 17-year-old kids who want to come to Canada and follow their hockey dreams.

“All these kids want to do is play hockey, and forcing them to stay home is exactly what Russia wants,” said Milstein. “This is not punishing a federation, it’s punishing individuals.”

Andrii Bukvych, Chargé d’Affaires of the Ukrainian embassy in Ottawa, has gone even further, calling for the Canadian government to stop granting visas and work permits to all Russian athletes.

“Russia is toxic, and we must make it clear that we will not have anything to do with all things Russian, whether it’s cultural or sports, or anything,” said Bukvych. “It’s not enough right now not to support Putin. There must be concrete actions. The world must isolate Russia in every possible way. This is not a time to be neutral and politically correct.

“It’s not a secret that Russia has weaponized sports. It has hosted sporting events like the World Cup and Olympics as a way of building up its image. Well, now we all have to make a choice. If you are not okay at least in some small way with Ukrainian women and children being killed, then it’s time now to ban everything Russian…This is black and white. It’s about values. It’s literally about a battle for freedom.”

This type of rhetoric — punishing individual Russians for the actions of their government — is dangerous. As soon as you include people within a call to ban “everything Russian,” you’re treading on dangerous ground.

Preventing an individual Russian from playing their sport when they're not representing Russia has nothing to do with any battle for freedom.

Individual Russian people are not to blame for the invasion of Ukraine and punishing a 16 or 17-year-old kid — one who wants to leave Russia and come to Canada — is completely backward. The CHL should not ban Russian and Belarusian players from the import draft.