“The National Hockey League has a war crimes problem”, blared a headline in Friday’s Globe and Mail. Agreed. But it goes beyond Alex Ovechkin promoting Vladimir Putin.
The greatest goal scorer in hockey history shouldn’t have the Russian president’s photo on his Instagram account. Russia’s war in Ukraine is illegal and brutal (even if NATO expansion, foreign-promoted ouster of President Vicktor Yanukovich and other moves contributed to provoking it).
But it’s absurd to suggest NHL complicity in war crimes began with Ovechkin. Six months into George W. Bush’s March 2003 invasion of Iraq the New Jersey Devils brought the Stanley Cup to the White House. Unlike Russia’s war, US violence in Iraq was entirely unprovoked. It also left hundreds of thousands dead and destabilized much of the region.
And it wasn’t even Bush’s first major war. A year and a half earlier the US invaded Afghanistan without UN approval. At least 160,000 Afghans were killed over two decades of fighting and occupation.
The Stanley Cup winning team went to the White House in 2002 as well as subsequent years.
NHL officials and former NHL players repeatedly went to Afghanistan to boost troop morale. “Leafs boss leading Stanley Cup trip to Afghanistan”, “NHL players return to Kandahar”, “Stanley Cup, NHL alumni visit Kandahar Airfield” were headlines describing multiple trips. At the height of the war in Afghanistan the Canadian Forces launched an outreach program labeled Operation Connection, which included armed forces nights at NHL games.
In a situation more directly analogous to Ovechkin’s support for Putin, the greatest ever hockey player publicly supported the invasion of Iraq. Wayne Gretzky said he backed Bush “100 percent”. Similarly, after Stephen Harper dispatched fighter jets, naval vessels, special forces and a Canadian to command the 2011 bombing of Libya Gretzky repeatedly celebrated the prime minister. Amidst the destruction The Great One called Harper “an unreal prime minister” (He did so at a 2014 Ukraine Gala just after Harper played an aggressive role in ousting Yanukovich, which lead to war in the Donbass.)
NHL complicity with war crimes goes deeper. For four decades one of the only NHL awards not named after someone attached to the league was the Lester B. Pearson Award. Now the Ted Lindsay Award, it’s given to the player voted MVP by other players.
Pearson threatened to quit as external affairs minister if Canada failed to deploy ground troops (27,000) to the Korean war, which left up to four million dead. At one point the US-led forces stopped bombing the north of the country when they determined no building over one story was still standing.
As I detail in Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt, Pearson had a hand in many other unjust policies.An ardent cold warrior, Pearson backed colonialism and apartheid in Africa, Zionism, coups in Guatemala, Iran and Brazil and the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic. In the foreword to my book Noam Chomsky outlines why he considers Pearson a war criminal. Pearson abetted war crimes by having Canadian International Control Commission (ICC) officials deliver US bombing threats to the North Vietnamese leadership in 1964. As prime minister, Pearson also had ICC officials spy on North Vietnam for Washington, approved chemical weapon (Agent Orange, Purple and Blue) testing in Canada, ramped up weapons sales to the US and provided various other forms of support to Washington’sviolence in Indochina.
Yes, the NHL has a “war crimes problem”, but it’s not new.