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They support Ukraine. So they can not support Alex Ovechkin.

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Lynn Kessler began participating in Washington Capitals fights in the 1970s and grew to love her hometown team more with each passing year. The 58-year-old has rooted for generations of Capitals players and has turned many of her friends into die-hard fans of the franchise, where at one point she shared a season pass package with some of them. The rooms in her home are filled with memorabilia, and her Facebook page is a sanctuary for recent players.

But when the Capitals hit the ice to begin the Stanley Cup playoffs Tuesday at the Florida Panthers, Kessler will not watch. She has not seen a Capitals match since February, when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Her husband’s family is from Ukraine and Kessler is in conflict with the team because of its Russian captain, Alex Ovechkin. Like other fans from Ukraine or with ties to the country interviewed for this story, Kessler is angry at Ovechkin’s support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I still love Caps, but I do not love Alex Ovechkin,” Kessler said. “It’s going to be really weird not to see the playoffs, but I don’t think I can do it.”

The vast majority of Capitals fans still seem to support Ovechkin and seem empathetic to the position the war has placed him and his family in. As the face of the franchise for more than a decade, Ovechkin still brings undeniable stellar power to every game – there are far more No. 8 jerseys worn by fans at home games than any other Capitals player, and fans often sing his name after scoring. At the Capitals’ home final of the regular season last week, the crowd gave him a standing ovation to celebrate a historic season in which he rose to No. 3 on the NHL’s all-time goal list. The ceremony included messages from his parents, wife and children, who showed up via video from Russia.

But some Ukrainians living in the DC area have felt their voices drowned out by the organization they were once rooted in. Some have used the Capital One Arena as a venue for protests and waving Ukrainian flags. Others have signed an online petition demanding that the capitals sever ties with Ovechkin. Some, such as Kessler, have boycotted the team because they believe Ovechkin and the capitals have not gone far enough to condemn the war.

Ovechkin was proclaimed during fighting in March in Calgary and Edmonton, which have large Ukrainian populations. Ovechkin has made the most comprehensive public comments on the war between the approximately 40 Russian players in the NHL, many of whom have been kept away from the media by their teams. Russian athletes in other sports have largely been considered pariahs, including at major events – Wimbledon will ban players from Russia and Belarus from its upcoming tournament, and FIFA excluded Russia from international competition, keeping it out of this year’s World Cup.

But perhaps no player has been subjected to as much scrutiny as Ovechkin, one of Russia’s most prominent athletes, who has fallen into the crosshairs of public outrage because of his close relationship with Putin.

“I was a Caps fan for a long time,” said Maryna Baydyuk, a Ukrainian who is president of United Help Ukraine, a non-profit organization in Washington. “Especially in sports, and in this case with Alex Ovechkin as a supporter of Putin, it just really destroys the sense of community that really wants to support a team, a local team here that is doing well. We’ve seen Caps fail, and we’ve seen them win … and we’re always on the hunt for them. It takes away from the whole society, for now we are divided. We have fans who say Ovechkin should leave the team. We have fans who now say, ‘We do not know.’ We have fans who say we support Ovechkin and the team. Now you have this division. “

The capitals declined to make Ovechkin or owner Ted Leonsis available for interviews and declined to comment on this story. The team condemned the war in Ukraine in a March statement.

“Monumental Sports & Entertainment and the Washington Capitals join the National Hockey League in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the loss of innocent lives,” Capitals writes. said in the statement. “We call for and hope for a peaceful solution as soon as possible. The capitals also fully support our Russian players and their families abroad. We are aware that they are being put in a difficult situation and are ready to offer our help to them and their families. “

Ovechkin took a pro-Kremlin stance after the invasion and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and he received a wedding gift from Putin in 2017. That year, the Capitals star launched an online movement on social media called PutinTeam to support the Russian leader . Although he has not posted since the invasion, Ovechkin’s Instagram profile picture still shows him with Putin.

Alex Ovechkin, the Russian star in the capitals, says: ‘Please, no more war’

In Ovechkin’s only public comment on the February invasion, he called for “no more war.” Asked if he still supported Putin, Ovechkin replied: “Well, he is my president.

“But … I’m not into politics,” the 36-year-old continued. “I’m an athlete and you know, like I said, I hope everything is done soon. It’s a tough situation right now for both sides, and everything I said, everything I hope, will be over. “I have no control over this situation.”

The capitals faced setbacks in early March after a fan, Margaryta Suvorova, reported on social media that she was not allowed to enter the arena for a home game because she was carrying a Ukrainian flag. “I had not even flagged on; I just kept it like a scarf. The security people told me I could not bring the flag into the stadium, “said Suvorova, a Ukrainian who lives and works in DC and has participated in several Capitals matches over the past few years. “And then I went to Ovechkins [Instagram] profile and saw that he still has a profile picture with Putin. So I thought, ‘Okay, that makes sense.’ “He still supports Putin, so they do not want all this conflict, and they do not want to see Ukrainian and Russian flags.”

Capital One Arena repeated its policy the following day – the stadium allows national flags as long as they do not obstruct the view or obstruct fans’ experience, but do not allow signs that are of a political nature. When Suvorova and a friend went to another match less than two weeks later, they were allowed to enter the arena with Ukrainian flags draped over their shoulders. One of the flags had a printout of Ovechkin’s Instagram page attached to it with a red box outlining his picture with the Russian leader and the text below that read, “Ovechkin condemns Putin’s war.”

“They can do more and they should do more,” said Suvorova, whose brother and grandparents still live in Ukraine. “[Ovechkin] has millions of followers. … People, especially young people, look up to Ovechkin. They look up to these stars. You are in this position, you have this power to be an example, and what example is he showing people right now? He’s just not just silent. … [The Capitals] just do not want to do anything. “

After reading that fans did not have access to the arena, Kessler wrote to Leonsis. As a fan over the years, she had often written to the owner to congratulate him on the team’s success or to inquire about a player, and he often responded, she said. This letter was different. She wrote that she hoped fans would not be limited to expressing their support for Ukraine. She got no response, she said.

Kevin Blackistone: Alex Ovechkin’s voice is powerful. His comments about Ukraine were a wasted opportunity.

“I do not want anything bad on Caps. I love Caps. I really do,” Kessler said. “The fact that Ovechkin’s profile picture on his Instagram is himself with Vladimir Putin, it hurts me. It really does.”

There were no protests outside the Capital One Arena before the team’s final regular home game, as dozens of fans in red and blue Ovechkin jerseys lined up outside. The majority of fans still support the team, and close capacity spectators are expected when the Capitals’ playoff series in the first round moves to Washington.

Baydyuk, an assistant research professor at Georgetown, has taken part in protests in the White House almost every weekend since the war began, and in March she gathered support to hold a demonstration against Ovechkin and the capitals in front of the Capital One Arena. But she and other supporters of Ukraine met backlash online from Capitals fans and she did not feel a protest until a home game would be safe. Instead, she launched an online signature collection urging the capitals to get rid of Ovechkin, and more than 200 people have signed it. The organization did not respond publicly to the petition.

Baydyuk has felt a loss for not being able to root for its local team. She remembers the joy she felt when she and her family took part in matches and how they cheered on the Capitals’ Stanley Cup victory in 2018.

“We’ve always seen all the great matches.… We’ve been Caps fans – until now,” she said. “that you fully support the team. It’s not there anymore. For all of us, we lost this amazing feeling of having this wonderful team in our capital that we all support. It’s gone.”

As Ovechkin prepared to play what would be his final game of the regular season (he was injured in the competition), some of the area’s Ukrainian hockey enthusiasts gathered on Orthodox Easter Sunday in Baltimore to celebrate their own NHL stars, announcing into a theater. at the eastern end of the city. They ate pirogies and drank Ukrainian beer before taking their seats to watch the documentary “UKE”, which tells the stories of NHL players from Ukrainian immigrant families – including Ken Daneyko, Johnny Bucyk and Wayne Gretzky, who publicly in his role as analysts with TNT commented on the war and the criticism Ovechkin faced in the days following the invasion.

“We all agree that this is a meaningless war. … Alex is not driving this bus. It’s this one guy driving this bus, ”Gretzky said television, referring to Putin. “And it’s not good.”

Volodymyr Mula, the director of “UKE”, lives in Kiev but traveled to Baltimore to see it. The 32-year-old began working on the film in 2017; it took him more than two years to secure an interview with Gretzky, he said, and the pandemic interrupted the release date. But he also had a hard time getting into the subject of Russia and Ovechkin during the development of the film.

“I saw that many people do not want to talk about politics [issues]. “I started talking about Russian aggression, what they think about Ovechkin’s attempts to support Putin,” Mula said. “And a lot of people said to me, ‘Don’t ask about it.’ And that’s a big problem. I think politics and sports are not another field.”

After showing his film, Mula received a $ 10,000 check from the Dnipro Ukrainian club, which promotes Ukrainian heritage in the Mid-Atlantic, and he planned to return home and donate the money for the war effort.

Back in DC, as Ovechkin and the Capitals prepare to begin their eighth appearance in a row after Tuesday’s season, Baydyuk will help manage his nonprofit, which has raised more than $ 22 million to Ukraine. Suvorova will participate in upcoming fundraisers that bring more awareness of the war. “There are other things – they are more important than just Caps,” Suvorova said. “We just have to do what we can.”

This is the most exciting time of the year to be a hockey fan, but instead, Kessler feels a sense of emptiness. She has fond memories of rooting for her favorite capitals in the playoffs over the years – Scott Stevens, Peter Bondra and Tom Wilson among them – but she does not know when she can add more.

“It’s hard. It stinks because I love Caps. But I just feel like I can not support them right now in this situation,” she said. “Which makes me sad because I still love many of the players on the team and I want them to do well. But I just can not. ”

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