Russian NHLers on a future without international play: ‘Just doesn’t seem fair’

It was the biggest goal of Kirill Kaprizov’s life, and he celebrated like it.

The Minnesota Wild winger had just scored a power-play goal off a one-timer midway through overtime in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea — the coveted “golden goal,” ending a wild gold medal game in a 4-3 win for Olympic Athletes from Russia over Germany.

Beaming, Kaprizov sprinted to the blue line, tossed off his helmet and jumped into the arms of teammates, including idols Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.

“One of the highlights of my life,” Kaprizov says now.

Nikita Kucherov, a two-time Stanley Cup winner for the Tampa Bay Lightning and contender for a second Hart Trophy this season, has never had that Olympics moment.

Neither has teammate Andrei Vasilevskiy, one of the top goalies of his generation.

Or New York Rangers forward Artemi Panarin.

Or Carolina Hurricanes forward Andrei Svechnikov.

NHL players haven’t participated in the Olympics since 2014, and while they’ll be back for the 2026 Olympics in Milan, Italy, there’s a good chance the Russians will not be coming along.

The IIHF suspended Russia from international play after its invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and on Monday, the federation extended that decision through the 2024 and 2025 championship season.

It appears unlikely that Russia (or Belarus) will be reinstated while the war continues. Sweden, Finland and Czechia (among the top European nations) have made it known that they’d withdraw from any competition if Russia or Belarus is allowed back in.

The International Olympic Committee ruled late last year that some Russian and Belarusian individual athletes will be allowed to participate in the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, wearing neutral colors. But the country remains banned from all team sports.

The situation this leaves for some of the world’s best hockey players obviously pales in comparison to those involved in the war in Ukraine, where hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and injured. And there are legitimate concerns about what it would mean to allow Russian participation, even under a neutral Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) banner, as in 2018, when doping led to the country being suspended.

There are concerns for the safety of athletes, and there are concerns about celebrating athletes whose country is involved in such attacks. And many Russian players understand that.

“Growing up, I would watch national team. Any national team,” says future Hall of Famer Evgeni Malkin, who has represented Russia in 18 international events, including three Olympics, seven World Championships and a World Cup of Hockey. “I would watch Sid (Crosby) win Olympics (in 2010 and 2014) — it’s amazing. That how we judged in Russian: international.

“But it’s hard because next Olympics games in Italy, it’s Europe. Maybe more dangerous for us. Here (in North America), maybe no problem. … Right now it’s a dangerous situation and we know it. I think it’s more to protect the players.”

Still, NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh counters, “Russian players didn’t create the situation we’re in in the world with Ukraine. Obviously, they’re a big part of who I represent. We’ll address (them playing internationally) hopefully in a positive manner.

“I think the world would love to see (it). The hockey world, certainly, and the world would benefit from seeing best-on-best with all countries involved. That would be the best scenario.”

Some will point out that these athletes have not condemned their country’s actions. Some have even called for the NHL to ban Russian players.

Others will argue that an athlete is not the government and that speaking out against one’s country can be an uncomfortable if not dangerous position. It can mean losing the ability to travel home and fear of retaliation against family who remain there.

One thing that was clear over the past several weeks as The Athletic spoke with Russian athletes around the NHL: While the war and the politics of being a Russian living outside Russia during it are conversational nonstarters, the reality of losing the opportunity to compete on the world’s biggest stage is emotional.

This was a dream for these athletes — the same as it was for Canada’s Connor McDavid or the United States’ Auston Matthews.

“(Kucherov) is like 30 now and he never was in the Olympics and he’s one of the best hockey players in the world,” Kaprizov says. “It’s hard for him, and I think it’s hard for everybody. We have to watch on TV as other NHL guys play in these international tournaments.

“To think I may never get to again and some of my friends from Russia may never — it just doesn’t seem fair.”

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Kirill Kaprizov (second from right) lines up with his teammates after winning the gold medal at the 2018 Olympics. (Harry How / Getty Images)

Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev was 9 years old when he stayed up late to watch Russia beat Canada in the 2008 World Championships. His parents were asleep, so he sneaked into another room in their Nizhnekamsk apartment to take in every moment.

“I was screaming like from the inside because I couldn’t wake anyone up,” he says.

NHL games were hard to get on TV. But for international tournaments, like the worlds and the Olympics, the whole country was watching.

The 2008 worlds was the tournament that made Kovalchuk a national hero. He scored the tying goal and overtime winner in Quebec City as Russia won the gold.

“That was always my dream,” says Sergachev, now 25.

“Those are moments you always remember,” adds Svechnikov, 23.

Svechnikov says his family didn’t have much money when he was growing up in Barnaul, Russia. They didn’t have the channels to watch NHL games. He’d eventually be able to go on a computer as a teenager and watch highlights, but until then, international competitions, from the World Championships to the Olympics, were his gateway into the sport at the highest level.

Participating in the amateur versions of these tournaments was a gateway, as well, helping Svechnikov move up to No. 2 in his draft year, 2018.

Now, draft-eligible prospects like potential top 2024 draft picks Ivan Demidov and Anton Silayev (Russia) and Artyom Levshunov (Belarus) won’t have a chance to improve their standing with standout performances in that event.

“When I was a young guy, I always wanted to play for my country and show myself to a lot of scouts and agents — show them what I can do,” Svechnikov says. “You can get the higher number in the NHL Draft. Everyone wants to play in the NHL, and that’s the only way where you get to see yourself. You have to prove yourself, that you’re one of the best in the world. It’s tough to see those kids not have that opportunity to play for themselves.”

Russian prospects already with NHL teams, meanwhile, such as the Arizona Coyotes’ Dmitriy Simashev and Daniil But and the Colorado Avalanche’s Mikhail Gulyayev, also don’t get the experience of playing against the world’s top competition in the world juniors.

“It’s bad (for younger Russian players) because they already miss one Olympics games and couple World Championships,” Malkin says. “It’s not easy.

“Every player wants to wear national jersey. If you see, like, soccer — how huge World Cup is, how many people watch. In hockey, if Canada plays against Russia in final or semifinal, how huge is that? We have good young guys and they, like, hungry to win. It’s a little bit hard to understand because we play here and nothing’s bad, but we can’t play national team — it’s a little bit tough. I want young guys to play, for sure.

“So I hope it’s last year (of the ban). It’s just sport. We want play to win international. Growing up, we never try to say something wrong or do something wrong; we just here to play. I hope everything goes back to normal life for everybody and everybody has chance to play.”

Kucherov and Vasilevskiy have had the chance to play in world championships and world juniors. They’ve also played in three of the past four Stanley Cup Finals, but as Vasilevskiy puts it, “It’s not the same.”

“You have the whole country watching you, the whole country supporting you,” Vasilevskiy says. “My parents, my grandma, watching me. All my friends. Let’s be honest. Some of them, they don’t really watch the NHL. I’m not saying they’re too far from it, but they just don’t. And it doesn’t happen that often. Once every four years, right?

“For us, it’s been once in … never.”

“It’s a big thing back home,” Kucherov adds. “To be able to put on a Russian jersey and represent the country, it’s for the parents and how proud they are and all your friends, coaches. I just feel so bad for the young guys, not being able to be there and play.

“As a parent right now, I’d love to see my kids represent their country and have that chance on the biggest stage of the sport.”

Sergachev, like other Russian players interviewed for this story, declined to get into the politics of the issue. He just knows the significance of the opportunities and how they can pave the way for others.

“Those big guys, like (Alex Ovechkin) and Malkin, (Kovalchuk), when those guys played, it was an amazing time,” Sergachev says. “As a kid, I’d be very happy watching them, because I was like, ‘You can be this good.’ I was proud that they’re from the same country as I am. As a kid, I was trying the move that Kovy was making and stuff like that. It was just very inspiring.”

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If Nikita Kucherov, 30, doesn’t play in the 2026 Olympics, will he have a chance to in 2030? (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

Ovechkin is a veteran of three Olympics and is chasing Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record in the NHL.

So when it’s brought to the 38-year-old’s attention that he might have played in his final Olympics, he doesn’t seem worried about himself.

“I try not to think about that,” Ovechkin says. “But (Kucherov) may never play in the Olympics. It’s crazy. But it is what it is. It’s not in our power what we can do. We just follow the rules. It’s not fun, but it is what it is.”

Is this unfair?

“Nothing we can do right now,” Ovechkin says. “What they’re gonna say: ‘We’re gonna do it’? Right now, we’re staying home. Maybe it changes. Hope so.”

Adds Malkin, “It’s rules, you know? We all support rules. It’s one more year, but I hope any day they cancel it. We play here in NHL, and they have power. I hope (the NHL) say we won’t play (in Olympics) without Russian and Belarusian players. Owners, the bosses — they can see it’s, like, more marketing, more commercials, everything.

“If you ask any players from any country, I think they say they love to play against Russia because it’s a great rivalry — with Canada, U.S., Sweden, Czech. It’s sports, not politics. We’re here to play. It’s hard sometimes to understand the rules because we don’t do anything — we just play for fans, you know?”

The Russian team won’t be involved in next February’s 4 Nations Face-Off (the four are the United States, Canada, Finland and Sweden). Other countries are being left out of that event, as well, of course. Bruins star David Pastrnak won’t be playing for Czechia in his home arena in Boston, one of the event’s hosts.

The Russians being on the sidelines is a different matter, though. Clearly, the reason the league is including four nations and not holding a full World Cup-like tournament is because Russia can’t be included.

Kaprizov has a gold medal from the OAR team, as does Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin. The Wild winger believes there’s enough talent with Russia to be a contender in any event, including the 4 Nations.

“Maybe other countries don’t want us, but we would like to go,” Kaprizov, 26, says. “It’s special. It’s the NHL. It’s supposed to be like the World Cup to show best country, and they only have four. Not just us, but Switzerland, Germany, Czechia, Slovakia. Seems weird. Wish we could play in that. I guess I’ll watch on TV.”

For Sergachev, right now, the focus is on his current season and an extensive rehab from left leg surgery. But he believes he’ll have an opportunity to play on a world stage at some point. And having Russia and all the countries involved, he says, is the best thing for the events.

“It’s tough to watch the (World Cup, Olympics) without Russia because of all the rivalries we have, like Canada and the States,” Sergachev says. “I want to beat Canadians. I want to beat Americans. I want to be the best in the world. And, hopefully, one day, we’ll get a chance to.”

At 25, there may be time for him to get that opportunity.

But Vasilevskiy is 29, Kucherov 30.

“I hope they allow us before we hit 40, me and Kuch,” Vasilevsky says. “Otherwise, I’ll be coaching.”

(Top photos of the 2018 OAR Olympic team and Nikita Kucherov: Jung Yeon-Je and Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

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