North Americans playing in the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League have been put in a difficult position amid calls from the U.S and Canadian governments for them to leave the country because of the war in Ukraine.
The Canadian government has advised its citizens to leave Russia while commercial means are still available, cautioning anyone holding a Russian passport could be subject to call-up for mandatory military service. Earlier this week, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued the same security alert for Americans in Russia, urging them to leave.
The moves come a week after Russian President Vladimir Putin called to mobilize more troops to fight in Ukraine and almost two months since American women’s basketball star Brittney Griner was convicted of drug possession and smuggling.
She was sentenced to nine years in prison for the vape cartridges of cannabis oil police said they found in her luggage Feb. 17 upon landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.
According to Elite Prospects, which tracks player movement around hockey, 13 Americans and 43 Canadians have either signed a new contract or re-signed to play in the KHL since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, sparking a war that shows no signs of abating. Not all of them play for teams based in Russia because the KHL also has teams in Belarus and Kazakhstan.
The KHL responded to the U.S. Embassy’s alert by saying anyone who is not a Russian citizen is not subject to military conscription and that mobilization orders do not void any contracts.
Allain Roy, an agent who represents eight North American players in the KHL, said he was still processing the latest call for U.S. and Canadian citizens to leave and said it was “definitely a concern.” He added he would be discussing the matter with each client individually.
Ritch Winter, who represents three Canadians in the KHL, defended his clients’ ability to calculate the “risk-reward analysis” that comes with playing there.
“There isn’t a single client that I represent that didn’t wrestle with this decision,” Winter said. “I haven’t heard anybody concerned about their safety. … Nobody that is there now and has been there in the past has noticed any significant difference in the way of life there, so they’re there. They’re playing and they’re comfortable. Now, if the situation changes dramatically, I expect some of them potentially could reconsider, as players did last (spring).”
Travel to and through Russia has been in the spotlight since Griner was detained in February, put on trial and jailed amid pleas for her release and U.S. talks to free her.
William E. Pomeranz, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute and author of a book about Russian legal evolution, said trouble could arise out of the blue for Americans or Canadians playing in Russia. He said the presence of Capitals star Alex Ovechkin and other Russians playing in the NHL in North America would not be a deterrent.
“The fact that Ovechkin’s in Washington I don’t think will have any impact on some poor Canadian hockey player if they decide that they want to make him an example,” Pomeranz said. “I don’t think anyone should think that just because they’re a hockey player and there are Russian hockey players in the United States that somehow you can’t get caught up in the Russian legal system, because if you get caught up in the Russian legal system, there’s no way out.”
Multiple other agents who represent North American players in the KHL declined comment or did not respond to messages seeking comment.