Friday, August 2, 2013

Russian NHL Players Have A Lot To Think About

With the sudden departure of Ilya Kovalchuk from the NHL, many in the blogosphere have openly wondered about other Russian NHL stars such as Alex Ovechkin or Evgeny Malkin making the same move. Washington Capitals prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov has openly said he may pull a Kovalchuk when he turns 30. It may be a bit of a stretch, but with relations between the US and Russia hitting a sour note of late, among other issues, the issue may become a bit more complex.

It's a well-known idea that people have a certain amount of pride (and loyalty) to their country. Gone are the days of defection from an Eastern Block country in the middle of the night to come to North America and play in the NHL. Russian players have the choice to stay in their native land and play in a major professional league, the KHL, or come to North America to the NHL. Most superstars make the leap to the NHL, wanting to play against the best in addition to being paid well. Playing for the Stanley Cup is also kinda cool.

Now, bringing National Pride into the equation. If the US and Russia continue to bicker (and don't think Russia giving Edward Snowden temporary asylum isn't going to cause a whole new level of bickering and bitterness between the two countries), some Russian players may choose to stand on their country's side in political matters and retire to return to Russia. If Kovalchuk's departure proved anything, it's that if you're a big enough name you won't be taking a pay cut to make such a move.

The other big new out of Russia recently is its passage of an anti-gay rights activism law. It has already become an issue with the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic games in Sochi, with Russia warning that athletes will be subject to the same laws while in the country. Hockey has been brought into the fight, with the You Can Play Project having strong support in NHL circles.

Thinking more long-term, this could potentially become an issue among Russian NHL players. Would you, as a Russian, publicly stand with You Can Play, knowing your home country's stance on the issue? I wonder how many Russian players want to stand with the organization but are afraid to. And if you were a supporter of You Can Play, would you make an ethical decision to stay in the NHL and effectively boycott your own country to make a point? Maybe. Freedom of speech is a big deal to some. Sometimes being allowed to take a stance on an issue is more important than what side of the issue you're on.

Like I said, these are grown men with the ability to make decisions about their futures. Kovalchuk chose to return home to be closer to family and friends. Whenever Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Malkin or any other Russian-born player currently in the NHL decides to return to their homeland, whether it's mid-career or retiring from the NHL in their 40s, they'll do so for their own reasons.

There might just be more reasons in play than we think.

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