Ovechkin and Putin: Why?

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Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8), of Russia, looks on during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Calgary Flames, Monday, Nov. 20, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

WASHINGTON — For more than a dozen years, Alex Ovechkin has skated between two worlds: his country of birth and his professional home. He’s beloved, cheered and revered in both.

He regularly has tried to appease supporters in these disparate homes, making his living playing hockey in the United States’ capital while spending much of his offseason in Russia’s. And while the hockey star has never hidden his affection for Vladimir Putin, Ovechkin this month raised the stakes considerably, announcing on his Instagram account that he was organizing a movement to support the Russian president.

“Today, I want to announce a social movement in the name of PutinTeam,” Ovechkin wrote in the post, accompanied by a photo of Ovechkin being embraced by the Russian leader. “Be a part of this team — to me it’s a privilege, it’s like the feeling of when you put on the jersey of the Russian team, knowing that the whole country is rooting for you.” Ovechkin ended the post with the hashtag #putinteam.

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Ovechkin now finds himself awkwardly in the middle of a geopolitical maelstrom — perhaps by his own doing — tugged in multiple directions, just as he has been for much of his extraordinary career.

He has given an unwavering endorsement to a man who U.S. intelligence agencies say sanctioned Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election and whose athletes have drawn the ire of the international Olympic community for a state—sponsored doping scheme. At the same time, Ovechkin insists his advocacy is free of politics.

“I’m not a politic,” Ovechkin said in a recent interview. “I don’t know what’s happening out there. I know it’s a hard situation, but it is what it is. You know, I play here, and this is my second home. I don’t want to fight between two countries, because it’s going to be a mess.”

Ovechkin says the PutinTeam movement was his idea, though there are signs that a Kremlin—backed public—relations firm might have played a role. Ovechkin’s decision to wave the Putin banner comes at an especially awkward time: Relations between the countries are frayed, and a special counsel is investigating possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian officials ahead of the 2016 election. Seven in 10 Americans hold an unfavorable opinion of Russia, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The situation is certainly a thorny one for the Washington Capitals and the National Hockey League. Ted Leonsis, the Capitals team owner who signed Ovechkin to a 13—year, $124 million contract in 2008, declined to comment for this article, as did the league office. The Capitals prefer for Ovechkin to discuss the situation himself, keeping team brass at arm’s length from a sensitive topic that’s fraught with complications. Theirs is a business relationship in which Ovechkin is paid handsomely — he will earn $10 million this season — but team officials know that, even off the ice, one of the game’s most recognizable players must always represent Russia as well as Washington.

Ovechkin, 32, and his family have long enjoyed government support. His mother was a basketball star with the Soviet national team, a two—time Olympic gold medalist who later leaned on her political connections to help finance her Moscow—based club team. Her son arrived in Washington in 2005 and quickly blossomed into one of hockey’s best players, certainly the most prolific scorer Russia has sent to the NHL. Only Jaromir Jagr has more career goals among active players, and Ovechkin has led the league in goals six times and been named its most valuable player three times.

His fame and success have afforded him an unusually close relationship with the Kremlin. He has a personal phone number for Putin and received a wedding present from the Russian leader last year.

He says he is aware that vocally supporting Putin could rub some Americans the wrong way, but Capitals fans are still showing up to games, still wearing Ovechkin’s No. 8 jersey, still cheering his on—ice exploits, and there’s no sign his legacy or standing among Washington hockey fans has suffered.

“It’s been good reactions, and it’s been bad reactions,” said Ovechkin, who began learning English when he arrived in Washington. “People have own mind, own views.”

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Though Ovechkin shared no details of his PutinTeam effort when he made his Instagram post Nov. 2, last week he announced the soft launch of a new Russian—language website — putinteam.ru — inviting people to sign up for the team, track related news, participate in contests and attend and organize events. “PutinTeam is an informal movement,” the site reads. “Everyone who shares our values can join the team.”

The domain was created Sept. 6, but it was not immediately clear who funded and created the site or who was running its associated pages on Facebook, Instagram and other social networks. The official line from the Kremlin is that Putin did not know in advance about Ovechkin’s plans, though the Russian president certainly welcomed the gesture.

“Indeed, Sasha is a very famous Russian and a very successful one, and we know how much he appreciates our president,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, referring to Ovechkin by his Russian nickname.

Ovechkin maintains the idea was his and says he felt it was the right thing to do for his country. “If somebody ask me to do something for my country, I will,” he said. “If there’s a world championship, I go. So it’s that kind of a situation.”

Asked whether anyone enlisted him to launch the campaign on Putin’s behalf, Ovechkin quickly answered, “No,” and said he ran the idea by one friend before making his initial post.

People within the Capitals’ organization, however, are under the impression that Ovechkin was asked to create PutinTeam, and Russian media have begun connecting dots back to the Russian government. The financial newspaper Vedomosti, citing Kremlin sources, reported that the project was developed by a Moscow consulting agency called IMA—Consulting, which holds a reported $600,000 contract to promote the country’s presidential election in March.

While Putin hasn’t formally announced his intentions, he is expected to seek a new six—year term. He enjoys such a high favorability rating that a celebrity endorsement won’t win or lose the race, but Kremlin observers say it could help foster support among young voters.

A leading sports agent based in Moscow who represents athletes in hockey and other sports told The Washington Post that several of his clients had been approached to join PutinTeam by “political guys.” The agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, declined to name them. A representative for IMA—Consulting told The Post that it had no connection to PutinTeam.

Thus far, PutinTeam has attracted only a handful of high—profile supporters, including hockey Hall of Famer Pavel Bure, former NHL player Ilya Kovalchuk, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin and chess grandmaster Sergey Karjakin.

Despite its intentions, the campaign has highlighted the dilemma facing Russian professional athletes living in the United States who support Putin. Several Russian hockey players, including those who have not publicly signed on to Ovechkin’s initiative, declined interview requests. Malkin waited five days after pledging his support on social media to answer questions about the campaign.

“I don’t know what’s going on here [in the United States]. They don’t like or like him,” Malkin said of Putin. “I’m not trying to read everything. I just want to support him.”

There are more than 30 Russians playing in the NHL. Only Malkin has followed Ovechkin’s lead and joined PutinTeam.

One U.S.—based hockey agent who represents Russian players in North America said of Ovechkin’s initiative: “All of my clients, everybody’s rolling their eyes, basically, saying, ‘What the [heck]?’ It’s like he’s lobbying for a job in politics.”

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The first known encounter between Ovechkin and Putin came a decade ago. Ovechkin was 21 and had just wrapped up his second season with the Capitals. Ovechkin attended a meeting in May 2007 at the Kremlin near the end of Putin’s first presidential term; the meeting also included Russia’s national hockey coach at the time, Vyacheslav Bykov.

While Ovechkin doesn’t talk politics in the Capitals’ locker room, his pride in Russia has been evident from the day he arrived in Washington. “He didn’t really say anything,” said Bruce Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007 to 2011. “He’s a very passionate man. As we’re passionate about our country, he is about his.”

The Putin—Ovechkin relationship seemed to grow in the buildup to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Putin’s biggest opportunity to showcase his country to the world. Ovechkin was the face of the Winter Games. He was given the honor of running the first leg of the Olympic torch’s journey from Greece to Moscow, and he carried the nation’s hopes into the highly anticipated men’s hockey tournament.

Putin had a front—row seat to Olympic disappointment as the Russian hockey team lost in a shootout against the United States, then failed to win a medal. Three months later, though, the Russians beat Finland to win the world championship in Belarus. Cameras captured Ovechkin helping Putin drink champagne from the trophy in the postgame locker room.

Putin reportedly rewarded every player with a Mercedes—Benz, and the team returned to Moscow for a special reception at the Kremlin. “You remember how in the locker room on Sunday you offered me champagne?” Putin told the team, according to Russian news reports. “Well, now it’s my turn.”

While Ovechkin rarely spoke publicly about Putin as a young player, he has become more open in recent years with sharing his admiration via social media. In September 2014, he posted a birthday message to Putin on Instagram. “You’re on the right track and we respect your actions and will support you in everything always because we also love our country!!!” Ovechkin wrote.

The Russian president has reciprocated the warm feelings. He gave Ovechkin an ornamental tea set as a wedding present last year and sent a telegram that was read aloud at the reception.

Ovechkin has mostly sidestepped political discussions and hasn’t delved deeply into some of Putin’s more controversial actions. In 2013, Putin signed a law punishing anyone who spread “propaganda of non—traditional sexual relations” to minors, prompting criticism from all corners of the world in advance of the Sochi Games. “Our job is to play. I’d rather speak about that,” Ovechkin told Russian website sports.ru at the time.

A year later, Ovechkin uploaded a photo on his Instagram account in which the player was holding a sign that read #SaveChildrenFromFascism,” a hashtag used at the time by pro—Russian groups seeking support in Ukraine. It came months after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and amid fears Moscow would further escalate the situation with an open invasion of Ukraine. Ovechkin downplayed the significance of his post, telling ESPN then, “I don’t try to make a statement.”

A person close to Ovechkin explained that he tries to navigate a delicate tightrope, supporting one country while trying not to offend the other, and that the PutinTeam initiative has underscored the innate difficulties he faces.

“If he played in Carolina, this probably wouldn’t be as interesting to some people as it probably is, just given where he lives and works and what he does,” said the Ovechkin associate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could talk more freely. “To say that Alex or anybody is following the daily nuances of really high—level, very complex geopolitical issues, they’re probably not doing that, right?”

Ovechkin says he mostly watches hockey news but occasionally takes in political reports. At the least, he knows how Putin is perceived by many in the United States.

“But again, it’s their view,” he said. “My view is my view. Your view is your view.”

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The Capitals feature players from nine countries, including five Americans, three Russians and others from Canada, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Australia, Czech Republic and Germany.

If any teammate is at odds with the captain’s pro—Putin stance, he hasn’t said so publicly.

While the Capitals organization may not be eager to discuss Ovechkin’s relationship with Putin, team officials are aware that it could upset some fans. At the same time, they accept the demands being placed on him from Moscow and recognize the franchise has at times had to work around them, especially during the offseason.

When Washington hired Barry Trotz as coach in May 2014, one of his first acts was a phone call to Ovechkin, who was in Moscow. The two spoke only briefly, Trotz later explained, because the new coach caught the star player “at Mr. Putin’s house,” where they were celebrating Russia’s world championship.

To connect more closely with Ovechkin, Adam Oates, Trotz’s predecessor, boarded a plane after he was hired in 2012 and flew to Moscow to meet the Russian star. They watched video together and chatted about Ovechkin’s role on the team.

“We had a good time,” Oates told The Post then. But their visit was cut short, Oates said, because Ovechkin was called to attend a Kremlin—related function promoting the Sochi Olympics. “So we were a little unlucky with that,” Oates said.

Some of the complications in the Ovechkin—Putin relationship take place far away from the ice, in murky areas that team officials concede they probably don’t fully understand.

This was perhaps most prevalent in the past year, when Olympic officials tried to strike a deal with the NHL that would allow the league’s players to compete in the Winter Games in South Korea in February. The NHL did not want to send them, and some players initially threatened to walk away from their NHL teams to represent their countries. None was louder than Ovechkin. But when the NHL refused to budge,Ovechkin eventually resigned himself to missing out on playing in a fourth Olympics for his country.

“He wants to win the Stanley Cup. He wants to win with his teammates here,” Trotz told The Post in 2016 while the Olympics situation was still in flux. “That’s priority number one. When he goes to Russia, a lot of times there is a lot more pressure on him going than there are on Canadian or USA players in the world championships — different kinds of pressures.”

Trotz was asked whether he was referring to Putin.

“We’ll just say different kinds of pressures,” the coach replied. “He would love to stay, but he’s also proud for Russia, too, and he gets that. When those pressures are put on him, he’s got to go.”

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While there is no shortage of photographs featuring the Russian leader and the hockey star, the extent of their relationship is up for debate. Clearly, Ovechkin is feted differently than other Russian athletes, and he represents many of the masculine qualities that Putin might want projected on himself, said Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar, author of the book “All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin.”

“It’s the idea Ovechkin symbolizes. He’s a strong man who’s an athlete, who wins,” Zygar said. “Putin plays hockey, Ovechkin plays hockey. It’s natural idea.”

Even among hockey players, Ovechkin is clearly treated differently. At a news conference last summer, Malkin was being honored as the best Russian player in the NHL when he was asked by a Russian reporter, “Have you ever received a phone call on your mobile phone from President Vladimir Putin?

“No,” the Penguins forward said. “I am not Alexander Ovechkin, after all.”

Ovechkin has downplayed the depth of his friendship with Putin, saying in a recent interview that the two don’t have much in common. “We talk about hockey and all that stuff. That’s it,” he said.

While the high—profile relationship and increasingly vocal support might give some North American hockey fans pause, the Ovechkin family learned long ago the benefits of befriending powerful political leaders.

During the early 1990s, when Russia was navigating the difficult transition from communism to capitalism following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yuri Luzhkov, the larger—than—life former Moscow mayor, invested heavily in the Dynamo women’s basketball club, which was coached by Ovechkin’s mother. In a 2008 interview with Moscow—based newspaper Sport Express, Tatyana Ovechkina said she consulted Luzhkov “in all questions concerning Sasha’s future in hockey.” When the Capitals drafted Ovechkin, she said, the first person she called was Luzhkov.

Reached by telephone last week, Luzhkov said he had not spoken with Ovechkin about the PutinTeam project. He laughed off suggestions that Ovechkin was attempting to make political inroads in Moscow, saying the hockey star’s standing in Russia isn’t dependent on Kremlin support. Noting that Ovechkin operates in the same athletic pantheon as Argentine soccer superstar Lionel Messi, Luzhkov said: “Lionel Messi probably does not need any political support, and neither does Sasha.”

Kremlin observers explain that many Russian celebrities can face pressures both overt and indirect to take part in a Russian political campaign. For many, an endorsement might protect their families or help secure government funding for their projects. But most agree that Ovechkin probably is above such pressures — too rich, too high profile.

People in Moscow and Washington say Ovechkin’s efforts supporting Putin seem sincere and reflect only his love of Russia. For him, it’s the simplest part of an otherwise complex geopolitical equation: He embraces the attention and the expectations — promoting the Olympics or representing the Russian team in international competition — and he accepts any accompanying pressure as a natural byproduct of his unique place in Putin’s orbit.

Said one Ovechkin associate: “It’s remarkable that he is so carefree given the sort of two worlds that he lives in, which now obviously is being magnified because the two worlds that he lives in are maybe not as close as they used to be in recent times.”

While some suggest Ovechkin could be laying the groundwork for a government position when his playing days are over, Ovechkin says he is focused solely on his hockey career. Asked whether he thinks he will return to Russia when he retires, he said, “I don’t know. We just have to talk to family, my wife. Hopefully the kid’s going to come soon, and we’ll see what’s going to happen.

“But, again, I feel comfortable here, and I feel comfortable over there.”

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