The Canadian federal government recently sent word to hockey teams traveling in Russia and Belarus to leave as soon as possible, according to the Toronto Sun. Forty-eight Canadian hockey athletes are on the roster for the Kontinental Hockey League, and 44 of them are playing in Russia and Belarus (the other four are in Kazakhstan).
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, and Canada was an early supporter of Ukraine since the war began. The Canadian government has given $626 million in military aid, and $320 in humanitarian relief. “Our government has been very clear. Canadians should avoid all travel to Russia and Belarus,” Global Affairs Canada said in a statement to The Canadian Press. “If they are in Russia or in Belarus, they should leave now. Our ability to provide consular services may become extremely limited.”
There could be a possibility that a situation similar to the imprisonment of U.S. WNBA athlete Brittney Griner could occur due to the ongoing conflict. According to Maria Popova, Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University in Quebec, there is a real threat to players. “Anybody who is in Russia is always in danger of being framed, incarcerated, used as a pawn in whatever the local government, central government et cetera decides to do,” Popova said. “I think something like what happened to Brittney Griner is possible. The same playbook can be repeated in a case against a Canadian player for sure.”
Griner was detained in Russia on Feb. 17, just before Russia invaded Ukraine. Popova did add, however, that while there’s a risk for players playing abroad, she doesn’t see a clear reason why Russia would choose to detain more athletes. “I don’t see why Russia would try to use these people as a pawn because Canada is not Russia’s main problem in this war,” Popova said. “There isn’t really any hope that Russia could change Canadian policy in Ukraine. They know Canada is firmly in NATO, clearly backing Ukraine.”
Adrien Blanchard, press secretary for Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly, told CBC.ca that players should explain why they are choosing to stay in Russia and Belarus. “President [Vladimir] Putin’s war in Ukraine is a war on freedom, on democracy and on the rights of Ukrainians, and all people, to determine their own future,” Blanchard said. “Athletes who decide to play and associate with Russia and Belarus should explain their decisions to the public.”
Player-agent Ritchie Winter, based in Alberta, manages three players currently involved in the Kontinental Hockey League. In his opinion, players have every right to continue making a living.
“We live in a world where individuals are allowed to make those decisions. It’s just an individual decision related to an employment opportunity. Has every player that’s gone, push, tugged and pulled and wrestled with the decision? Yeah, absolutely,” Winter said. “At the end of the day, they’re husbands and fathers who have responsibilities to their families. If you’re a young family with limited resources because you played mostly in the minors, there’s a desire to take care of your family. Sometimes that leads people to the oilfields in Kazakhstan and sometimes it leads them to the KHL.”
An NBC News report from March shared that players often compete in Russia because they can possibly earn four or five times more than their U.S. salaries. Citing Ketra Armstrong, a professor of sport management and the director of the Center for Race & Ethnicity in Sport at the University of Michigan. “It’s a sad situation in many regards, but it’s not totally beyond the realm of understanding,” said Armstrong. “The amount of money that athletes can make throughout other parts of the world is incredible and almost a no-brainer depending on how good you are and your overall market appeal.”
The National Hockey League (NHL) does conduct THC drug tests on players, but CBD is permitted. Rather than being punished for cannabis use, the NHL refers the players to a Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program.
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