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Game Time Mail Bag: Sports and international conflict

In today’s Mail Bag, a reader voices support for the Blues’ Russian players while condemning Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Dallas Stars v St Louis Blues Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images

Editor’s note:

The war in Ukraine has been a sobering reminder that the world is not a peaceful place, and that the lives of millions of people can be dictated by the whims of one very disturbed individual. Vladimir Putin’s war is demonstrating that he is nothing more than a despot who envisions himself as the second coming of Peter the Great, cobbling back together the tsar’s empire under the pretenses of being concerned about the eastward spread of NATO. As the war continues, it’s becoming more and more clear that he does not care what lies he tells, how many Ukrainians he kills or displaces, and how many of his own people protesting the war he arrests. Frankly, his response to sanctions and other economic penalties from the West and Western businesses is demonstrating that he also does not care about what his war is doing to the Russian people.

It is always important during times of war and international conflict to differentiate between the people in charge of that war and the people from the aggressor nation who do not support that nation’s actions. Currently it is more than clear who that aggressor nation is, and international sporting reaction has been swift and strong. The Russian national team in every sport or competition is an extension of Putin’s government, a way to demonstrate the Kremlin’s soft power on an international stage. It puts Russian athletes in the difficult position of deciding if they’re representing their nation or representing that nation’s ruler. Banning Russian national teams’ participation, or the participation of vocal Putin supporters, is appropriate and warranted.

In the US, there has been talk of banning individual athletes of Russian descent from participating in sport, specifically the NHL. Daniel Milstein, agent of Ivan Barbashev and former agent of Klim Kostin, is sounding the alarm for Russian players in the league. They have been harassed by fans, and many teams have had to increase security for those players due to threats. While it is important to note that many players, such as Alexander Ovechkin, have been vocal in their support for Putin over the years, not all players have been - and those who have voiced strong opposition have faced career repercussions. To the best of my research, I have not found any statements by Vladimir Tarasenko, Barbashev, Kostin, or Pavel Buchnevich that could be constituted as support for Putin past some from Tarasenko saying meeting Putin after winning the Gagarin Cup would be something he would tell his grandchildren about. He made those statements some time ago.

Whenever there is a large geopolitical conflict or war, people who have ties to the aggressor nation have been placed under the microscope - or worse. During WWI, St. Louis changed many street names from their original German ones to more patriotic names like Pershing Avenue. Citizens in Collinsville lynched Robert Prager, a German immigrant. The fact that this occurred in a metro area economically centered on the most German industry of all - beer - that had been bolstered by countless German immigrants should be concerning by itself, but the metro STL area had a huge German population which continues through today. Just as now in the case of many Russians living internationally, during WWI these people were trying to live their lives. National desire to be done with anything German consumed the nation and damaged pride in people’s heritage, let alone their livelihoods.

Very clearly, harassing Russian players on social media is not in the same league as lynching someone (and absolutely not in the same league as anything that happened in the US during World War II to Japanese-Americans or Italian-Americans), but conflict between nations historically has had consequences for those who don’t want a thing to do with it.

If you have comments regarding this piece, or can find instances of full-throated Putin apologia from the team’s players, please discuss in the comments. If you would like to contribute to the International Committee of the Red Cross, please see our post fundraising for them, or donate to the ICRC directly. The emphasis should be always placed on those directly impacted by Putin’s invasion, though it is still acceptable to understand that Putin’s decisions are having indirect impacts on individuals who do not have a say in the matter as well.

If you would like to see your email featured on St. Louis Game Time, please send it over to hildymacgt at gmail dot com. The Mail Bag is always open & the following letter has been edited for typos/clarity. Clearly, nothing in this letter constitutes support for the Russian government or their actions, just the Blues’ quartet of players as people. - Hildy

Game Time reader Stephen Crone writes:

Game Time-

The Blues would not be looking like Cup contenders without the contributions from our four forwards that hail from Russia. Obviously, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine creates a difficult situation for these guys. They have family back home and it might become difficult to travel to see them in the off season. I do not know their opinions about Putin or the war, but they are not in a position to criticize the situation without having to worry about how those statements will create difficulties for their families. If their families need money it will be harder to send it to them with SWIFT shutting down transactions to many Russian banks. All of that said, right about now Russian players are looking pretty smart for choosing the NHL over the KHL as the sliding ruble cut KHL salaries by 30% over [last] weekend. They now also have to deal with a new media distraction with people like Dominik Hasek calling for all Russian players to be suspended. This was a statement that most regard as ridiculous as it would give Putin something he would like, mainly the best Russian players returning to the KHL. The fact that they cannot compete for their talent financially is a source of embarrassment for Russia. In short, suspending these players would be a gift to Russia. So with all of this in mind I would like to highlight our four Russians and the fantastic seasons that they are having.

Vladimir Tarasenko was the ultimate question mark coming into the season. Would he get traded? If not, would he bounce back from the surgery and be close to the player he was before? Would his trade request be a problem in the locker room? We are lucky to have gotten the best possible answer to all these questions. He is currently on a 77-point pace for the season which would be a career high. He is only on pace to score 30 goals which is down a little since before surgeries, but my own eyeball test is that his shot has gotten heavy again just recently and I’m guessing his goals might pick up a click. At any rate his resiliency to comeback from his shoulder problems as well as his being a team guy regardless of background means that he is a leader. If he had not had to deal with the shoulder problems (or if the team got the treatment right the first time) perhaps he would be captain. O’Reilly stepped into the role after taking us to our first Cup, so he is going to stay captain. That said, Vlady is definitely made a strong argument for being an alternate captain.

Pavel Buchnevich has been better than advertised. His acquisition is yet another move that makes Armstrong look like a genius. Pavel is on a point per game pace for the first time in his career and should hit career highs in points and goals in the next few games if he continues and stays healthy. Maybe most impressive is that he leads forwards with a plus 20 and have impressive possession numbers as well (Corsi 54.7%; Fenwick 54.6). He has played on several lines and he just makes everyone better.

Ivan Barbashev is having a breakout season. A lot of people were surprised when he was protected in the expansion draft last summer after having a down season last year. That move is also now making Armstrong look pretty smart. Last season he scored .315 points per game; this season he is scoring at .784 points per game. He is currently on a pace for a 59 point season and his 87 hits is third on the team. He has basically jumped from being a fourth line player to a second line player.

Klim Kostin was a different kind of question mark at the start of the season. Could he break into the NHL? He has not had the huge jump Ivan had but he has been a solid fourth line winger. His 90 hits are second on the team behind Faulk (100), and Kostin has accomplished this in far less ice time. He is a physical force on a team that needs more physical players. That is not to say that he has not shown flashes of his offensive skills. He has had a couple pretty goals and a lot of close chances. It may only be a matter of time before he breaks out as well.

So, I just wanted to take a minute and let these guys know I, and a lot of other fans, appreciate them and what they have done for our team this year. There is no way we are in second place in the West without them.