Russia Likes to Break the Rules

I grew up playing ice hockey. First with boys, and then, when there was enough interest to form a league, I joined a girls’ team too. Playing sports helps build character. It teaches young players to be tough — how to take a hit and how to give one – while also helping kids learn about teamwork, respect and sportsmanship.

These are supposed to be universal values in sports. Universal, apparently, except in Russia.

After taking a 6-1 pummeling from the Canadians during the World Championship finals, Russian players quickly skated off the ice; most disappearing into the dressing room before the trophy was even presented. A few NHLers, including Alex Ovechkin, stayed on the ice, but the majority didn’t stick around to hear O Canada.

As Don Cherry perfectly described it, these Russian players have “no class and no honour.”

The Russians broke tradition, but it’s hardly the first time Russian hockey players have shown a lack of sportsmanship during international play. Just this past January, during the 2015 World Junior Championship in Toronto, Russian defenceman Ziat Paigin angrily hurled his stick into the crowd after losing 5-4 to Canada in the finals.

Paigin was unapologetic, defending his actions by saying he threw his stick to the fans “as a souvenir, as a gesture of appreciation.” Anyone who saw it on TV could see the stick was thrown out of frustration.

What a clown.

And he isn’t alone. Go back to last year’s World Championships, when Russian head coach Oleg Znarok was suspended for making a throat-slashing gesture at the Swedish assistant coach during a semi-final game Russia went on to win. The Russian coach again made a sorry excuse; defending the obscene gesture by saying he was cold and expressing he had a sore throat. Despite the suspension, Znarok attended the game anyway, apparently communicated with coaches on the bench according to news reports at the time, and went onto the ice to celebrate Russia’s eventual gold medal victory.

Perhaps these are all simple misunderstandings — logistical errors, cultural miscues, and honest-to-goodness mistakes — and we should all calm down and take the Russians at their word. More likely, however, these are symbolic gestures, emblematic of Russia’s inability to play nice with others and get along on the world stage.

Russian hockey players and coaches seem to enjoy violating rules and are shameless about making up excuses. They just don’t care. They’re a lot like their political leaders.

When photos emerged showing Russian soldiers in Ukrainian territory, Vladimir Putin flatly denied it.

When outspoken critic Boris Nemtsov was assassinated outside the Kremlin, Putin showed no empathy.

When the whole world was condemning Russia for its authoritarian crackdown on homosexuality during the Sochi Olympics, its leaders simply doubled down.

Whether it’s violating the sovereignty of neighbouring countries, siding with rebels that seem to have taken down a commercial airliner, or degrading the code of conduct in international sport, Russia refuses to take any semblance of responsibility for its actions. Just as in international hockey, a simple slap on the wrist will not stop some in Russia from doing as they please.

They are testing just how far they can go without being contested, without any push back. They’ll continue to cross the line, if we let them.

This column first appeared in the Toronto Sun on Thursday, May 21, 2015