Ivan Fedotov, a Russian hockey player, recently signed with the Philadelphia Flyers, but his stint with the team seems like it is over before it could even begin. According to Russian news outlets, Fedotov is being detained in Russia for his plans to evade military service. This is a surprising step taken by the Russian government, considering that Fedotov was recently part of the Russian team at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, where the Russian Olympic Committee took home a silver medal. Out of an abundance of caution, a spokesperson for the National Hockey League refused to comment after stating it was aware of the situation, likely an attempt to avoid worsening the situation. The Flyers’ GM had an almost identical response.
Another prominent international athlete is also being detained in Russia, Brittney Griner. Griner is a professional basketball player from the United States who was detained in a Moscow airport after vape cartridges were found in her luggage containing traces of marijuana. Griner’s trial is set to begin later this year, but it is clear that she is being held as a political pawn because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Before the war, it was unlikely that the country would have held Griner; they would not have wanted to dissuade international superstars from entering the country to play in their leagues. Top WNBA players love playing in Russia, where they are treated like royalty, which is in stark contrast to their treatment in the United States, where women’s basketball is far less popular. Griner, a two-time gold medallist with Team USA, plays for the Phoenix Mercury and has played for Ekaterinburg during each WNBA off-season since 2014. For years, Russian clubs like Ekaterinburg have been buying the top WNBA talent, and American superstars have been more than happy to spend time close to Siberia. It has never just been about the hefty paycheck, either; by all accounts, these women receive an extremely warm welcome and are adored for their craft. But the war has changed everything. Since March, the world quickly excluded Russia from most international competitions; it seems the country is less afraid of destroying its reputation and appeal to foreign players.
The key difference between Fedotov and Griner is that Fedotov is Russian. Last year, he played for CSKA Moscow, one of the top clubs in Russia’s top hockey league and a team with a long history of ties to the Russian Army. The goalie helped his team win the league championship, and was considered by many to be the top goalie in the league. But since young men in Russia are required to enlist in the military for one year, Fedotov was taken from a hockey rink in St Petersburg directly to an enlistment office. Most countries with mandatory military service have waivers for certain people, including its top athletes, but given that Russia is in the middle of a war, it may be that the government is trying to send a message. And this message may not just be internal; top NHL leagues are always looking for talent, and there has always been a strong pipeline from Russia to the NHL. Maybe Russia is signalling to the NHL that this pipeline is no longer functional.