Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was on all our minds last week. Naturally, talk about the war found its way into hockey circles. Hockey is a global sport. Many of the game’s best players are from Russia, and there are numerous international hockey tournaments, from the annual World Junior Championships and World Championships, to the quadrennial Winter Olympics which just recently took place.
In a life-and-death situation like this, that can impact hundreds of thousands of lives, athletes and sportswriters cannot just “stick to sports.” That said, several prominent current and former NHL players spoke out about the war in Ukraine and what it could potentially mean for Russian hockey players.
Other hockey news this week includes two players reaching career milestones, another player having his jersey number retired, and the passing of one of hockey’s all-time great builders.
1. Hockey World Reacts to Invasion of Ukraine
The whole world was shook when Russia started its invasion of Ukraine last week Thursday. It didn’t take long for the world of hockey to react. Two teams from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League withdrew from the KHL playoffs over the weekend. First Jokerit, based in Helsinki, Finland, suspended its season on Friday. Then Latvian team Dynamo Riga followed suit on Sunday.
Jokerit chairman — as well as former NHL superstar and Hockey Hall of Fame member — Jari Kurri said this in a statement:
“My position on the end of the season was clear right on Thursday morning. However, in accordance with KHL policies, I had to have discussions with the league. That is why we are unfortunately only able to report this now. The world is going through really difficult times right now. All our thoughts are with the people suffering from the situation. We hope that a peaceful solution to the situation can be found soon.” (via the Jokerit website)
Former NHL goaltender Dominik Hasek, who grew up in Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) under the Soviet regime, said via Twitter on Saturday that the NHL should suspend all Russian players:
The NHL must immediately suspend contracts for all Russian players! Every athlete represents not only himself and his club, but also his country and its values and actions. That is a fact. If the NHL does not do so, it has indirect co-responsibility for the dead in Ukraine.
— Dominik Hasek (@hasek_dominik) February 26, 2022
He further expressed empathy for Russian players who do not support Russian President Vladimir Putin:
I also want to write, that I am very sorry for those Russian athletes, who condemn V. Putin and his Russian aggression in Ukraine. However, at the moment I also consider their exclusion a necessity.
— Dominik Hasek (@hasek_dominik) February 26, 2022
Alex Ovechkin, who is Russian and has been supportive of Putin in the past, avoided the media on Thursday. He then addressed them for three-and-a-half minutes on Friday. You can watch the segment below or read a transcript of what Ovechkin said here.
“I hope it’s going to end soon and [there] is going to be peace in both countries,” Ovechkin said in part. He tried to keep a neutral tone. Note that Ovechkin’s wife, children, and parents are currently living in Russia, and speaking out against Russia’s actions could endanger his family.
The World Junior Championships was cancelled late last year due to a surge of the COVID-19 outbreaks among the players. Earlier this month, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) announced that the tournament will be replayed this August.
But on Saturday’s TNT broadcast of the Stadium Series game between the Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning, Wayne Gretzky spoke his mind on the matter. The Great One believes that the Russian athletes should not be allowed to compete in the WJC, which will be held in Alberta.
“I think international hockey should say we are not going to let them (Russia) play in the World Juniors hockey tournament,” Gretzky said. “I think we as Canadians need to take that stance since the games are going to be played in Edmonton.” (source)
The IIHF will make a decision later today in regards to Russia’s participation in the upcoming WJC and future international tournaments.
2. Predators Retire #35 to Honor Pekka Rinne
Former Nashville Predators netminder Pekka Rinne was the latest player to have his jersey number retired this season. On Thursday, February 24, the Predators raised Rinne’s number 35 to the rafters. He is the first Preds’ player to have his number retired in the franchise’s 23-year history. The team honored Rinne with a pregame ceremony that was nearly an hour long. If you don’t have time to watch that, Rinne’s 15-minute speech is shown above.
Rinne, who played in Nashville from 2005-06 to 2020-21, is the team’s leader with 369 wins and 60 shutouts. Those marks are also tops among all NHL goaltenders from Finland. Rinne won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender in 2018, was a First-Team All-Star in 2018 and a Second-Team All-Star in 2011. Rinne appeared in four All-Star Games and scored an empty-net goal against the Chicago Blackhawks in 2020. He is the 12th goalie in NHL history to be credited with a goal.
3. Zdeno Chara Sets Two NHL Records in One Night
Islanders defenseman Zdeno Chara, 44, set two records on Thursday when the Isles played the Sharks. That night was his 1,652nd career regular season game, breaking Chris Chelios’ record for most NHL games played by a defenseman. Chara, who is the league’s tallest player at 6-foot-9, is now in his 24th season.
But one record that night wasn’t enough for Chara. Later that game, he dropped the gloves and fought with Jeffrey Viel, who was born nine months before Chara made his NHL debut in 1997. That makes Chara the oldest NHL player to get a fighting major. He won the fight, too. It wasn’t really close, though Viel did well for himself. Note how tiny Viel (who is 6’2″ and 205 lbs.) looks compared to Chara.
Two nights later, Chara set another record. He skated in his 1,653rd game, surpassing Mark Recchi and moving into 7th all-time in regular season games played.
To recap, Chara holds the NHL records for being the tallest player, having played the most games as a defenseman, having played the 7th-most games in history, and being the oldest player to get into a fight. If he plays next season, it will be Chara’s 25th in the NHL, which would tie him with Mark Messier for second-most seasons in the NHL. Both Chris Chelios and Gordie Howe are tied for first in that mark, having each played 26 seasons in the NHL.
4. Emile Francis Passes Away at Age 95Former NHL goaltender and general manager Emile “The Cat” Francis died on February 19. He was 95 years old. Francis played a total of 95 games over six seasons in the NHL — two with the Chicago Black Hawks and four with the New York Rangers.
But Francis really made his mark on the NHL as a builder. He was an NHL coach for 10 years with the Rangers and three with the Blues, and the GM of the Rangers, Blues, and Whalers from 1964 to 1989.
Francis’ greatest accomplishment was probably when he kept the St. Louis Blues from folding or relocating in 1977. At the time, the Blues were losing money and had cut its staff down to three people, with Francis serving as the team’s president, GM, and head coach. Francis convinced the Ralson-Purina company to purchase the Blues and keep them in St. Louis. A few years later, Francis was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builders’ Category in its class of 1982.
5. Corey Perry Scores 400th Goal
Tampa Bay Lighting forward and all-around pest Corey Perry scored his 400th regular-season goal last week Wednesday, when the Lightning beat the Oilers 5-3. He becomes the 103rd player in league history to hit the 400-goal milestone.
Perry’s scoring prowess is often overlooked because he has been one of the NHL’s great agitators during his career. Yes, Perry does have 1,500 penalty minutes and 44 fights (as per HockeyFights.com) to his name — including the postseason. But over his 17-year career, Perry has 446 regular season assists to go along with his 400 goals, and another 108 points in the playoffs. He’s hit the 25-goal mark eight times during the regular season and won the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2010-11 when he led the NHL with 50 goals. He also won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP that year.
Is Perry a future Hall of Famer? Anytime a player hits the 400 goal milestone, that question is worth asking. But forwards usually have to eclipse 1,000 points before they are seriously considered for the Hall of Fame. Perry has another year left on his contract with the Lightning, and could maybe get to 900 total points by the end of next year if he ups his production slightly, which is difficult to do on the fourth line. (He is scoring at about 0.428 points per game, or about 35 points in an 82-game season.) By the time that contract expires, Perry will be 38 and will most likely sign one-year deals until he retires. Still, never say never. Perry could hang on for another three or four years and hit 1,000 points. Either way, 400 goals is still quite an accomplishment.
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk. ■