Hockey: Matvei Michkov may never come to play in the NHL
Could Russian President Vladimir Putin decide to ban Russian players, like Matvei Michkov, from playing in the NHL?
All this to stop the “talent plunder” of the NHL. That's how we talk about it in Russia and that's why the KHL was created in the early 2000s. And all this while the Russian president does not miss many opportunities to get back those who support Ukraine, such as Canada and the United States.
“Could Putin do it? Yes, absolutely, it is within the scope of his abilities,” explains Jean Lévesque, history professor at UQAM, specializing in international sport and Russian politics.
He recalls that the separation between politics and sport in Russia is not the same as elsewhere.
“He could create a kind of embargo, it would go in the direction of the owners of the teams who want to keep the talents.”
I asked the professor if he took it, Michkov, with all these stakes.
“Can the Canadiens navigate all of this? This is a question that remains diplomatic, because we support Ukraine, which is at war with Russia, so we are indirectly at war with Russia,” he explains.
“If there was no war, I would take it right away, because everything would be negotiated. But there, it is a big obstacle”, he adds, mentioning that it would be much more difficult for a Russian player to escape from the country than in the days of the Soviet Union.
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Their lives at stake
That time is not so far away. She recalls that not so long ago, playing in the NHL, when you are a Russian player, it was dangerous. The lives of these athletes were at stake.
The excellent defender Oleg Tverdovky was asked for a ransom of $200,000 in 1996, while playing for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. His former coach in the Soviet Union had kidnapped his mother. This coach believed he was entitled to this amount, since Tverdovsky was pocketing $4.2 million to play in the NHL.
Alexander Mogilny was the first to flee Russia, in 1989. With Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov in his junior team, he was one of the finest treasures in the history of Soviet hockey. He just ran away from Sweden after a World Junior Hockey Championship.
But it's not for nothing that Alexander the Great, as he was called, kept himself away from cameras and attention in North America. In 1994, Sergei Fomichev, a Russian who had helped the hockey player to save himself, tried to extort nearly $200,000 from him.
The FBI intervened and allowed Fomichev's arrest and deportation .
The Frontline investigative show, of PBS, traced in 1999 a host of stories of extortion and threats from Russian criminal businessmen against the country's NHL players, such as Vyacheslav Fetisov, Pavel Bure and Alexei Zhitnik.  ;
In 1993, it was my colleague Réjean Tremblay, then at La Presse, who was one of the first to reveal cases of extortion from the Russian mafia towards Russian NHL players, including Fetisov.
According to Frontline investigative reporters, former Nordic Valeri Kamensky is said to have played a key role in the arrival of one of Russia's most powerful mobsters, Vyacheslav Sliva, in Canada in 1994. Kamensky allegedly asked the Nordics to prepare a visa for Sliva, saying that he was a friend of the players. Kamensky then denied it.
Several years later, Sliva was arrested and deported to Europe. Hidden microphones in his home demonstrated “that he controlled all of his operations around the world from his base in Toronto,” the international media RFE/RL revealed in 1997.
The Panarin case
More recently, another Russian player was embroiled in a mysterious story. In February 2021, Rangers star Artemi Panarin was accused by his former manager of hitting an 18-year-old girl 10 years earlier in a hotel bar in Latvia.
The coach said he had escaped justice after distributing bribes.
And his ex-coach in question, it was not anyone. It's Andrei Nazarov, who played 571 NHL games as a badass and coached nearly 15 years in the KHL, including last year in Sochi. Flamboyant, Nazarov is capable of being crazy behind the bench. He is the KHL coach who once hit fans sitting behind him with a hockey stick a few years ago.
The story about Panarin first caused a stir by the seriousness of the actions that would have been taken, then quickly by the inconsistency of the accusations. None of the witnesses could remember anything about the incident.
What everyone did remember, however, was that a month earlier, Panarin had posted on social networks his support for Alexei Navalny, the main opponent of Vladimir Putin.
People also remembered that Nazarov, pro-Putin, had often denounced Russian players who criticize their country of origin. He had asked for the resignation of Alexei Kovalev as KHL coach, because he had also supported Navalny.
At the time he accused Panarin, Nazarov was unemployed. The following year, he was rehired as a coach in the KHL. Was this an order or a political request in exchange for a new position?
It is impossible to know. And that's the problem with Russian hockey, even decades after Soviet rule. There are too many things that are impossible to know. And these are certainly not sporting or legal elements. It is much more serious and worrying.