The other day Ilya Kovalchuk did an interview with Russian media about why he chose to stay in the KHL for another season instead of coming back to the NHL for 2017-18. The biggest reason, of course, being that he wants to play in the Olympics. Said it right there. “When I found out that NHL players will no participate in the Olympics, I told my agent I will go to St. Petersburg for a year”.
Now I’m sure that makes sense for a lot of people. Wanting to play in the Olympics isn’t just a Russian thing. Every single player in the NHL would love to represent their nation on the world’s biggest stage. American, Canadian, Russian, everybody. You’re not going to find a hockey player who would turn down that opportunity. But it’s a little different for Russians. And if you’ve been listening to Spittin’ Chiclets, you’ve heard Whitney talk about how important the national team is to the guys over there. But it’s not purely pride-related like playing for Team USA or Team Canada is. There’s a lot more that goes into it and Russian journalist Slava Malamud broke it down on Twitter for everybody yesterday.
Buckle in because this is a bit long.
@SlavaMalamud on Twitter – In order to understand the dark undercurrent of RUS hockey and the role politics plays in it, you have to start with knowing one thing: hockey in Russia is not profitable. There is NO WAY to make money on professional hockey in Russia. You’ll always be in the red. Even the KHL’s financial giants, like SKA, operate with a loss in tens of millions of dollars every year. How are they kept afloat?
Most teams subside at the bare survival level by scrambling up a few sponsors and some taxpayers’ money, just enough to get by. But SKA and CSKA are owned by Russia’s biggest energy companies, all state-operated, all run by Putin’s inner circle of friends. They survive, and thrive, first and foremost, as political projects. As a way of promoting their patrons’ public image.
This is a relatively recent development. Throughout the 90s and early 2000s both clubs were barely scraping by. CSKA almost folded. New life, new owners, and boatloads of cash were given both teams once Putin decided to pay closer attention to hockey, around 2008. Several things happened that year: Russia won the Worlds, in Canada, overflowing the country with patriotism. The KHL was launched, advertising itself as the future of hockey, soon to surpass the NHL. Putin, who never skated or cared about the game suddenly became its staunch advocate. He saw a vehicle through which he could promote his own macho-patriotic image.
The new league’s leadership was stocked with Putin’s closest friends, and the companies they oversaw took over the top teams. Notably, SKA, representing Putin’s hometown, and CSKA, with its rich traditions and symbolism, got all of the government’s largess. Simultaneously, it became paramount for Putin to restore the national team as the source of patriotic pride, like in the Soviet days. In fact, a full-on assault of nostalgia-themed propaganda descended on Russian hockey. Uniforms redesigned to resemble the old ones, national team’s interests began to trum the league’s bottomline, a movie about Kharlamov (which tells the story of CCCP WINNING in ’72!) came out, the “Red Machine” brand returned. Hockey became a stand-in for Putin’s USSR nostalgia and his new imperial ambitions.
Hockey was always a political game in Russia. It was the one arena where we could consistently beat the West. But now, it became a powerful tool for internal propaganda. One way for Putin to be firmly associated w/ success, pride and triumph was to be around hockey…
…Putin’s appearances on ice and his obviously farcical multi-goal games are the new shirtless horse riding. They make Russians see him as a real man, a person who will bring glory to Russia. Photo-ops with hockey stars serve the same purpose. And players are happy to reciprocate (see Ovechkin’s pro-war in Ukraine propaganda). The crowning achievement of this 10-year campaign is Olympic gold.
his is the only reason the whole thing got started. This is what Putin demands. This is why the KHL still exists, why guys like Ovechkin and Kovalchuk are celebrated as national heroes and paraded around Kremlin. This is why Ovechkin and Kovalchuk are so adamant about playing in the Olympics. They know the expected easy triumph will mean Putin’s eternal gratitude. Especially in the election year.
Yes, Russian elections are rigged, but they serve a big propagandist purpose. It’s necessary for Putin to not just win but to win unequivocally, riding a wave of popular enthusiasm. Hockey can provide that as little else can. Particularly now, when Putin is faced with growing civil discord and an economic crisis. Make no mistake, Ovi’s and Kovalchuk’s decisions have a huge political side.
Russian hockey and politics are inseparable. Always have been. To quote the ex-PR officer of the RUS national team: “What moves our players is the love for their ancestors’ graves.” This ain’t your silly maple leaf here, Canada.”
If you made it through all of that, congrats. You got a wild ass story for your efforts.
TL;DR for anybody who zoned out after the first paragraph: Hockey in Russia is just one giant propaganda tool. Putin and his people control the KHL. They help out the players, the players help out Putin. And there’s nothing more important to Putin than winning gold at the Pyeongchang Olympics this winter. Which is why Kovalchuk is staying in Russia this year instead of coming over to the NHL again. Which is why there’s no way possible that Ovechkin is missing the Olympics this year regardless of what the penalty will be for it. It’s all pretty fascinating.
And you know what? I cannot wait for our rag tag group of amateur Americans to beat the piss out of those communist bastards again in February. The Russians may have Ovi and they may have Kovalchuk. The Americans may not have Kane or Matthews or Eichel. But we did it in 1980 and we’ll do it again. If Putin wants to get his greasy little gremlin paws in the hockey world just to win an election, he better be ready to drop the gloves and chuck them. Because we’re coming for that ass. USA! USA! USA!