Alex Ovechkin Skates Into Canada’s Dense Ukrainian Enclave

The hockey star Alex Ovechkin, center among Russian professional athletes in the public’s anger over the war in Ukraine, is about to play before the most unsympathetic crowd yet.

Ovechkin, President Vladimir V. Putin’s high-profile supporter, and his Washington Capitals teammates will play the Oilers on Wednesday night in Edmonton, Alberta, home to one of Canada’s largest concentrations of the Ukrainian diaspora.

Andriy Tovstiuk of Edmonton works with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress organizing fund-raising, 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 fired up,” said Tovstiuk, whose organization is working with both the Oilers and the Calgary Flames, who lost to the Capitals, 5-4, on Tuesday, to raise money for Ukraine through its 50-50 draws, which frequently hit more than $1 million. “But we’re all really wanting to focus on supporting Ukraine and really getting behind everything that’s going on right now.

“But who knows what will happen? It’s an emotional time for everybody, and we really encourage everybody 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 starting an online social movement in 2017 to support Putin winning the 2018 Russian election.

Edmonton is home to 160,000 people of Ukrainian descent, and there are 370,000 in Alberta, according to the 2016 Canadian census. There are roughly 1.4 million people of Ukrainian background living in Canada, more than anywhere outside Ukraine and Russia.

The Ukraine national anthem was performed by Stephania Romaniuk before a game between the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers.Credit…Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

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

Tim Shipton, an executive vice president of Oilers Entertainment Group, issued a statement on Monday: “The Edmonton Oilers stand in solidarity alongside the people of Ukraine. As we saw during 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 U.C.C. representatives are encouraging fans to wear the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag to the game. Flags, national colors and signs, screened for bad taste, are permitted in the arena.

On Tuesday, ahead of their first game of the season in Alberta, the Capitals issued a statement saying they “join the National Hockey League in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the loss of innocent life.” The statement continued: “We urge and hope for a peaceful resolution as quickly as possible. The Capitals also stand in full support of our Russian players and their families overseas. We realize they are being put in a difficult situation and stand by to offer our assistance to them and their families.”

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

Ovechkin held a news conference on Feb. 25 intended to distance himself from Putin and support for 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 calming his detractors, Ovechkin found himself under criticism from supporters of the war in his home country and opponents of it in the rest of the world. This resulted in a severe backlash on Ovechkin’s social media accounts from Russian supporters, and he was advised not to change his Instagram profile picture because it would not go over well in Russia.

That is why Ovechkin’s profile picture, showing him with Putin, on his verified Instagram account, which has 1.6 million followers, remained as of Wednesday afternoon. There was a plan to change the picture to a symbol for world peace after the news conference, but since Ovechkin’s wife, two children and parents are currently in Russia, it was decided 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 a Ukrainian flag emoji and the words “No war” and “STOP IT!!!” on Instagram the day after the invasion.

The helmet of the Oilers’ captain, Connor McDavid, with a Ukrainian flag sticker.Credit…Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

According to the player agent Dan Milstein, who represents dozens of Russian and Belarusian players with N.H.L. contracts, his clients and their families are facing a barrage of abuse and profanity on platforms like Instagram and Twitter.

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

Milstein, who is a native of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, was the only person connected with the N.H.L. who would agree to speak on the record for this article, with others citing fear of repercussions for associates or clients who have family members in Russia.

An N.H.L. spokesman did not respond to requests for comment from Commissioner Gary Bettman. But the league is working with police services in some of its 32 team cities to provide extra patrols around the arenas and homes of players.

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

“Of course, they’re worried not only about their families but also they are extremely worried about what is happening in Russia,” he said. “My clients don’t want the war, my clients want world peace. My clients are concerned for all the people in Ukraine and Russia, everybody.”

Russia-Ukraine War: Key Things to Know

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Chernobyl nuclear facility. The International Atomic Energy Agency said that the defunct power plant had been disconnected from electricity, though there was no need for immediate alarm. A power loss could affect the facility’s ability to keep the water that cools radioactive material circulating and lead to safety issues.

Evacuation efforts. Russian and Ukrainian forces said they were working on a temporary agreement to allow evacuations from six cities. In Mariupol, attempts to negotiate a cease-fire have fallen apart amid artillery fire and bombing.

On the diplomatic front. Vice President Kamala Harris began a three-day trip to Poland and Romania, as the United States and its NATO allies urgently try to find a way to help Ukraine defend itself without getting pulled into a wider war against Russia.

The ruble’s descent. To prop up Russia’s currency, which has been declining as a result of Western-imposed sanctions, the Central Bank of Russia announced new rules for foreign-currency accounts in Russia, seemingly intended to curb people’s ability to convert rubles into other currencies.

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 the Hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky.

Gretzky, 61, and still one of the most influential people in hockey, called for Russia to be barred from the rescheduled 2022 men’s world junior tournament shortly before the I.I.H.F. barred the country. He later explained on the Toronto radio station Sportsnet 590 that he was thinking of the large numbers of people of Ukrainian descent who live in Canada, especially Edmonton, where the tournament will be played in August.

“I just couldn’t relate to how we were going to welcome a country that is at war, to a city that has tons of Ukrainian family members that are still living in Ukraine,” said Gretzky, who spent most of his N.H.L. career in Edmonton. “And I got some pushback from people that said, ‘Why punish the Russian kids?’

Demonstrators held a photograph of Vladimir V. Putin and Alex Ovechkin before a game between the Capitals and Seattle Kraken in Washington.Credit…Nick Wass/Associated Press

“It’s not about punishing the Russian kids. What about the Ukrainian kids that are being killed daily? The Ukrainian kids that are 12 or 14 years old, going to war. I don’t want anybody to be punished. I just think it makes common sense that we shouldn’t compete against this country right now, while they’re at war against an innocent country.”

Last week, the N.H.L. condemned the Russian invasion in an official statement and said it was immediately suspending business relationships in Russia. The league suspended ties with the Kontinental Hockey League, which is largely based in Russia, this week. N.H.L. teams were told to stop communications with K.H.L. teams and agents based in Russia.

The N.H.L. statement also made clear the league’s position on Russian players, saying they “play in the N.H.L. on behalf of their N.H.L. clubs, and not on behalf of Russia.”

Milstein and other player agents said barring Russian N.H.L. players made no sense and would play into the hands of Putin, who continues the Russian government tradition of using elite athletes as propaganda.

The player agents also criticized the Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella group that oversees the three major junior leagues. The C.H.L. recently announced it canceled this year’s Russia-Canada series. It is also considering a ban on Russian and Belarusian prospects from its import draft, which distributes teenage players from countries outside North America to C.H.L. teams. Doing so, Milstein said, would essentially help Russia, which has reluctance over athletes playing elsewhere.

While some observers critical of Ovechkin, like the Hall of Fame goaltender Dominik Hasek, would like him barred for his support of Putin, others think suspending him and other Russians would not help the situation.

Slava Malamud, a teacher in Baltimore who was a journalist for many years in Russia, has a strong following on social media as a staunch critic of Ovechkin. While Malamud said he would not have a problem with Ovechkin’s being barred from the N.H.L. because of his support for Putin, he did not think punishing all Russian players would be fair.

“We’re not punishing Russians for being Russian,” he said. “You can’t help where you are born. But players who have explicitly supported Putin, first and foremost Ovechkin, have this on their conscience. He is stained by this. He did it very willingly.”

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