Canadians continue to play hockey for Continental Hockey League teams in Russia and Belarus, despite warnings from the Canadian government to leave those countries.
The 48 Canadian players currently in the KHL club roster this season are the most from any country outside of Russia.
Forty-four play for clubs within the borders of Russia and Belarus, with the other four in Kazakhstan.
Russia, backed by Belarus, invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Canada has firmly sided with Ukraine in the conflict with $626 million in military aid and over $320 million in humanitarian aid since February, and imposed financial sanctions on Russia and Belarus.
“President (Vladimir) Putin’s war in Ukraine is a war against freedom, against democracy and against the right of Ukrainians and all people to choose their own future,” Adrien Blanchard, press secretary for Secretary of State Melanie Joly, wrote in an email statement to The Canadian Press.
“As Canadians, these values are very important to us. Athletes who decide to play and ally with Russia and Belarus should explain their decisions to the public.”
Alberta-based players’ agent Ritchie Winter, who has three clients in the KHL, says players have the right to make a living from their job, just like other Canadians working abroad do.
“We live in a world where individuals are allowed to make these choices. It’s just an individual decision regarding an employment opportunity,” Winter said. “Did every player who went pushed and pulled and pulled and wrestled with the decision? Yes absolutely.
“At the end of the day, they are husbands and fathers who have responsibilities to their families. If you are a young family with limited resources because you mainly played in the minors, there is a desire to take care of your family.
“Sometimes that leads people to the oil fields in Kazakhstan and sometimes to the KHL.”
Recommendations to avoid travel to Russia and Belarus were issued on March 5 and February 24, respectively, Global Affairs Canada said in a statement to The Canadian Press.
“Our government was very clear. Canadians should avoid all travel to Russia and Belarus,” Blanchard said. “If you are in Russia or Belarus, you should leave now. Our ability to provide consular services could become extremely limited.”
Dozens of Canadians play in the men’s professional leagues across Europe each year. A top KHL player can earn over $1 million in annual salary.
The Canadian press has written to nine Canadian players in the KHL asking what assurances they have received from that league and its teams regarding their personal safety. Nobody answered.
“Last year some players got caught in the crosshairs when all of this was happening. They stayed and didn’t see any risk,” said Winter.
“From what the players tell me, the environment hasn’t changed from what it was (was) before. A lot of them balanced that risk and decided to play there.”
He also knows players who have declined to play in the KHL this season.
“Everyone has a different risk profile,” he said. “I’ve seen Canadian and American customers turn down huge amounts of money compared to what they’re making here.”
Last season there were 53 Canadians in the KHL. Seven played for Latvia’s Riga Dynamo, who retired from the league along with Finland’s Helsinki Jokerit.
“One thing I obviously don’t support is war,” said forward Jake Virtanen, who is on probation with the Oilers after playing 36 games for Spartak Moscow last season.
“That was one of the main reasons I left. It’s a difficult situation. I personally wouldn’t go back because of that.”
Ukraine supporter USA is embroiled in a diplomatic row with Russia over a professional athlete.
WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner, who plays basketball for Yekaterinburg in the offseason, was sentenced Aug. 4 to nine years in prison for drug possession.
When she arrived in Moscow on February 17, police said she found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
Winter says Russians playing in the NHL deter possible retaliatory detention of a Canadian player over Canada’s support of Ukraine, but a McGill Associate Professor of Political Science says the risk is there.
“Russia has no rule of law, so anyone staying in Russia is always at risk of being slandered, imprisoned or used as a pawn, whatever the local government, central government, etc. decide,” Maria Popova said.
The risk of a Canadian hockey player being arrested by local, state or central government is low to moderate, “but there is a risk,” she said. “I think something like what happened to Brittney Griner is possible. The same playbook can safely be repeated in a case against a Canadian player.”
“I don’t understand why Russia should try to use these people as a pawn because Canada is not Russia’s main problem in this war,” Popova continued.
“There’s not really any hope that Russia could change Canada’s policy in Ukraine. You know that Canada is firmly in NATO and unequivocally supports Ukraine.”
Goaltender Andrew Hammond became the youngest Canadian to sign with a KHL club. He came to Chelyabinsk Traktor on September 16.
Craig Woodcroft, brother of Edmonton Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft, coaches Minsk’s KHL team in Belarus.
“With what’s going on in the world, of course we pay attention to that,” said Jay Woodcroft.
“My brother is in Belarus, so not in the big Russian mainland, but they play in that league. He has had a good career there at a high level in the KHL.”
Seven Canadians in the KHL wore the Maple Leaf at the Beijing Olympics in February just before Russia invaded Ukraine, including goaltender Ed Pasquale (Metallurg Magnitogorsk) and forwards Corban Knight (Avangard Omsk) and Josh Ho-Sang (Salavat Yulaev).
— With files from Steven Sandor in Edmonton.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 28, 2022.
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