Sports are inherently political.
The two are inherently intertwined in dozens of ways, from government funding for stadiums and arenas to the causes championed by individual athletes. There’s the tribalism of sport, where teams become emblematic of entire cities — that’s political. Singing the national anthem ahead of a sporting event is a political act.
Consider the mayor of Penticton giving a speech extolling the virtues of his city in a press conference announcing the return of the Canucks Young Stars Classic before posing for a photo op with Stan Smyl and Canucks mascot Fin. With the Penticton civic election taking place in October, bringing back a sporting event that brings in tourism dollars will surely be part of his re-election campaign. Even a prospect tournament is political.
That’s before getting into the world of international competition, from the messy politics of the Olympics and the short and long-term socio-political impact of hosting the Games, to the use of sports as propaganda.
That leads to the complicated question of what to do with Russian athletes given Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Russian teams and athletes banned from international competition
In some instances, sporting bodies have chosen to ban Russian athletes from their events. This has typically been when the athletes would be directly representing Russia.
The IIHF banned Russia and their ally, Belarus, from the 2022 World Championships, replacing them with Austria and France. The IOC has called for the ban of Russian and Belarusian athletes from international competition. FIFA suspended Russia from the World Cup and other international events.
Those are events where athletes are directly representing Russia. Considering the way Russia uses sports for propagandic purposes, those bans make sense. But other groups have gone further.
Wimbledon banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing, which opens a can of worms. Individual tennis players do not compete directly for their nation at Wimbledon but the implication is that their success can be used as propaganda by Vladimir Putin.
The irony is that this action aligns directly with Putin’s own philosophy — that all Russian citizens are an extension of the state and Putin himself.
Do athletes represent their team or their country?
That brings us to the NHL, where 46 Russians and three Belarusians played at least one game last season. One of those Russians, Valeri Nichushkin, lifted the Stanley Cup on Sunday and Russian players like Alex Ovechkin, Artemi Panarin, and Kirill Kaprizov are among the NHL’s biggest stars.
Russian players in the NHL are a step further removed from representing Russia than athletes in an individual sport like tennis. In hockey and other team sports, individual players represent the team, its city, and its fans and not, presumably, their home countries.
NHL legend Dominik Hasek, however, has argued the opposite. He claimed that all players don’t just represent their team but also their “country and its values and actions” and called for the NHL to suspend all Russian players immediately back in February.
There’s a slippery slope to Hasek’s argument. If all athletes inherently represent their country and its values, even when playing in a team sport, then that applies to far more than just Russians. Should American hockey players have been suspended from the NHL when the U.S. invaded Iraq, considered an illegal war of aggression by many experts?
What about a player like Panarin, who has spoken out against Putin in the past? What about the players who feel they can’t speak out against Putin for fear of retribution against family members who still live in Russia? Is it fair to punish these individual players for the actions of Putin just because of where they were born?
"Our players play for their NHL teams, they're not playing for Russia."
Ultimately, it’s a moot point for current players. The NHL has not followed Hasek’s suggestion, not that the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement with the players would have allowed them to do so in the first place.
“Our players play for their NHL teams, they’re not playing for Russia,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “They’re in a pretty difficult situation, particularly those that have family back in Russia. That may be hard for a lot of people to understand, but it’s a reality I think you can’t lose sight of.”
The CHL, on the other hand, representing Canada’s three major junior leagues, has chosen to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from being selected in their Import Draft, which takes place on Friday. This punishes teenagers looking to leave Russia for actions by their government and ultimately does exactly what Putin has sought to do for years: keep elite Russian athletes in Russia.
The NHL has not followed suit. When the NHL Entry Draft takes place on July 7 and 8, Russian and Belarusian players will be eligible to be selected. But the “Russian Factor” is likely to see those players slide down the draft and get selected much later than they would be based purely on their talent.
"Russian Factor" will see Yurov, Miroshnichenko, Trikozov slide
There is always a “Russian Factor” at the draft because of the risk that Russian players might choose to stay in their home country, where they can still earn good money in the KHL and don’t need to navigate complicated language and cultural barriers. The current political climate further complicates things.
There is public opinion to consider, as many feel, like Hasek, that Russian players should face some sort of consequences in an effort to further sanction Russia. Some teams may worry about what message they might send by drafting a Russian player.
There are concerns about whether players might even be able to leave Russia at all. There are reports out of Russia that Ivan Fedotov, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect, was detained in St. Petersburg for allegedly evading military service by signing with the Flyers.
Could a similar fate befall other Russian players? Could there be difficulties obtaining work permits for Russians in the future if the war in Ukraine persists and the international community levies additional sanctions on Russia? The uncertainty will likely affect a bevy of Russian prospects.
The “Russian Factor” is unlikely to affect someone like Pavel Mintyukov, who already came over to North America and has played the last two seasons in the OHL with the Saginaw Spirit. But other top prospects like Danila Yurov, Ivan Miroshnichenko, and Gleb Trikozov could slide significantly.
In a normal year, Yurov might be a top-ten pick, with superb skating and an outstanding two-way game that could make him an impact top-six forward in the NHL. This year, he could slide to the back half of the first round before a team takes a chance on him.
Miroshnichenko has the added complication of a diagnosis of Hodkin’s Lymphoma and could slide into the second round, even if his array of offensive tools could make him an elite goal-scorer in the NHL.
Trikozov might have made an argument to be a first-round pick with his intelligent playmaking but he might end up late in the second round or even into the third round.
The fate of a handful of Russian prospects might seem like a trivial concern — far worse things are happening to teenagers in Ukraine because of Russia, after all — but those individual players don't deserve to be punished for Putin’s actions.
In addition, excluding Russian athletes could have the opposite effect, providing further fuel for Putin's propaganda, allowing him to argue that the Western world is anti-Russia.
"If you boiled Putin’s propaganda down to two simple objectives, they would be to promulgate: a) the idea of Russian supremacy and b) the conviction that the West does not want Russia to succeed," said Michael Rosenberg in an article for Sports Illustrated, arguing that banning Russian athletes from competing might be more likely to increase support within Russia for the war in Ukraine.
Canucks already seem open to Russian players
The "Russian Factor" is an element that each team will have to consider. Some teams have reportedly dropped all Russians and Belarusians from their draft lists. Others have created a separate list of Russian players, while others have included them in their regular lists but likely influenced by the concerns listed above.
It’s unclear how the Vancouver Canucks will deal with the “Russian Factor” in this year’s draft. They’ve already shown that they are willing to sign players out of Russia, committing to inking Andrei Kuzmenko to an entry-level contract. Kuzmenko is represented by Ukrainian-born agent Dan Milstein, as is Belarusian Canucks prospect Danila Klimovich.
The Canucks also have Russian Vasily Podkolzin on their roster. With Podkolzin and Kuzmenko, the Canucks could signal that they are a destination for other Russian players by picking another Russian in the NHL Entry Draft. Picking someone like Yurov, Miroshnichenko, or Trikozov could mean getting a great player far later in the draft than they perhaps should have gone.
Would that be the right thing to do? Or do those individual players represent Russia in some way that should be avoided?
It’s a complicated question that will loom like a dark cloud over the entire draft.