You can say this much for KHL President Alexander Medvedev: If his current gig ever goes south, he could always fall back on his greatest talent.
Medvedev could teach a master's level class in the art of baiting for the fun of it. Sometimes he's subtle, antagonizing with carefully chosen words. Other times he dumps barrels of verbal chum overboard and then sits back and watches everyone work themselves into a frenzy.
Medvedev's latest hit came over the long Labor Day weekend in an interview with Russia's Sport Express. Asked by a reporter when fans might see some of Russia's top stars playing in the KHL, Medvedev laid it on thick. “Are you talking about [Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin] returning to the KHL? There may be a pleasant surprise next season. Let’s wait.”
Classic Medvedev. You can almost see the Grinchy grin on his face, can't you?
Of course there's nothing that he would love more than to see his country's best players return home to add some much needed legitimacy to the product he's being employed to peddle. That's why he trots out some variation of this routine year after year. It gives the Russian public hope that it will soon see somebody other than Ilya Kovalchuk and a bunch of second- and third-tier talent.
But maybe this time there's something more to Medvedev's claims than just wishful thinking. And it might have little to do with hockey.
You've seen what's going on in Ukraine. While I'll leave it to others who are better versed in these matters to explain the intricacies of Russia's incursion into that country, it's clear that Vladimir Putin has aroused the ire of the U.S. by destabilizing the region and disrupting the post-Cold War status quo.
Beyond the larger implications, the rising tensions between the two countries create a potentially challenging situation for Russians who make their living in America. While some players can probably slide under the radar, it won't be as easy for others.
Take, for example, Ovechkin, a man who wears his nationalism on his sleeve.
But Ovi's more than just a flag waver. He pals around with Putin—or, at least, he is regularly used by Russia's president as a photo-op prop. And as Ovechkin's controversial Instagram post shows, the Capitals' superstar is not above carrying the man's water to help justify Russia's aggression. For the moment, the Instagram image has hardly raised a stir. But that, like the situation on the ground in the Ukraine, could change. In the wake of Medvedev's comments, the website Russian Machine Never Breaks translated an interview with former NHL defenseman Slava Feitsov, who is now a member of the Russian legislature. And even from Russia, Fetisov senses trouble brewing in the U.S.
“I am beginning to be concerned how Ovechkin will be received in America,” Fetisov said. “Although I believe that sport is the only thing that can unite people today. Our guys from the NHL are ambassadors promoting our way of life.”
That "way of life" has come under scrutiny before, and it could again. The media was all over Russian athletes ahead of the Sochi Olympic Games when the country enacted strict laws that were viewed as discriminatory against gay competitors. Is it really so hard to imagine even greater pressure on these “ambassadors” if Russia expands on its current incursion into the Ukraine or, heaven forbid, launches a full-scale invasion? Could there come a time when enhanced, unwanted attention leads one or more of those players to consider heading for safer ground?
It's possible. Of course, someone like Ovechkin has 70 million green reasons to stay, and there's a binding memorandum of understanding between the two leagues that would prevent him from playing in the KHL at least through the upcoming season while he is under contract with Washington. And that doesn't even take into account the personal investment that Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has made in Ovechkin. If there's trouble, Leonsis will do everything in his power to make it right for his star.
So maybe a defection back to Russia is highly unlikely. Then again, Kovalchuk's return came as a surprise, and a year ago it would have been tough to predict Russia sending troops in to protect kids in the "fascist" Ukraine.
If Mededev ultimately is proven right, it'll be because there's more in play here than just hockey. We could find out how much more this season.