Monday September 15th, 2014

Russia's aggression against neighboring Ukraine continues to be a big hit with the nation's hockey stars. Just last month, Alex Ovechkin was photographed, propaganda style, with a sign suggesting that the invasion was a means of saving children from fascism.

Ovechkin tried to weasel his way out of the controversy, saying that he was just anti-war.

"I don't try to make a statement," Ovechkin said. "Right now, as a Russian, I have lots of friends from Ukraine. I just don't want a war. Nobody wants a war. Especially when people are so close. It's hard to see, especially when you live so close to Ukraine. It's hard and it's dangerous. People die."

Uh-huh, that seems, um, plausible.

via Instagram

But Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov didn't leave himself quite as much wiggle room with this recent fashion statement.

The 2014 Vezina Trophy finalist was spotted over the weekend in downtown Denver wearing a shirt emblazoned with a photo of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and a phrase that translates to "Crimea Is Ours." Varlamov posted this image to his Instagram account, but later pulled it down.

Russian forces invaded Ukraine earlier this year, then annexed most of the Crimean peninsula after a vote that showed the majority of Crimeans wanted to join Russia. The aggression was widely condemned and it raised tensions between the U.S. and Russia to levels that handn't been seen since the Cold War.

Of course in America, where freedom of speech is guaranteed, Varlamov and Ovechkin—and even Tim Thomas—can espouse whatever political views they hold dear, no matter how controversial they might be. But at the same time, those opinions aren't expressed in a vacuum. As soon as they're out there, they become subject to attention and criticism.

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​Varlamov, who courted an entirely different kind of controversy last season, is perfectly within his rights to support a war that's very popular back home, but in doing so he bought himself a whole bunch of scrutiny he probably didn't need as he heads into a critical season in Colorado.

Then again, maybe nothing comes of this. Tensions are at a relatively low boil now with a cease-fire in place in the region. But if/when the situation heats up again, the goalie has opened himself up to questions about politics instead of puck stopping. His shirt may have been the height of hipster wear in Red Square this summer, but throwing it on for a night in Larimer Square made him a potential distraction for the Avalanche. Again.

Maybe Ovechkin can get away with such thing—of course he has more pressing concerns in Washington. Thomas, on the other hand, never really got past his decision to put his politics ahead of a team visit to the White House.

Varlamov? With his history, the last thing he needs is to make himself the center of attention. And yet he's done it again.

After what he put them through last season, his teammates deserved better.

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