Russian hockey stars will take center stage at Madison Square Garden tonight as the New York Rangers square off against the Tampa Bay Lightning for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Axios reported, while many sports leagues across the globe have banned Russian athletes, the NHL has taken a different approach.
“The Russian players are in an impossible situation,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman tells the Associated Press. “We celebrate every player’s accomplishments because they’re performing in the NHL for their NHL team for NHL fans.”
International affairs expert Matthew Schmidt told Sports Illustrated a ban on Russian hockey players would not have effected a positive policy change and could have backfired.
“Preventing Russian athletes from performing isn’t going to change [Putin’s] policy in Ukraine; it’s going to make him angry,” Schmidt said.
But Brendan Dwyer, a faculty member at VCU’s Center for Sport Leadership, says a ban on Russian hockey players would have affected the Kremlin.
“Putin puts these athletes on a pedestal more than soccer, more than tennis,” Dwyer says. “Sports are [important] for this regime … as a way to show power internationally and hockey more so than any other sport.”
The league has 56 Russian players (approximately 5% of the league). When the war broke out, the NHL condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by suspending all business operations in Russia.