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Sanction Russian NHL Players

You can debate whether sanctioning a county for the actions of its leaders is a good idea, especially when said leader is a thug like Vladamir Putin who seems hell bent on rebuilding the Iron Curtain one rusty bolt at a time. But once the decision is made to go the sanctions route, you need to go big or go home.

Of course Obama did neither. Sanctions against a bunch of dandruff-haired diplomats are beyond useless: they’re laughable, as evidenced by the fact that the Russians are laughing all the way to Kiev.

Again, in totalitarian regimes it’s questionable how much good sanctions really do – Cuba, Iran and Libya being prime examples – but Obama isn’t even trying.

In theory sanctions are supposed to affect just enough hardship on citizens that they pressure their leaders to change. Isolating South Africa during apartheid worked, not because National Party leaders saw the light, but because white South Africans got fed up with being unable to do anything outside their borders.

Sport was no small part of that. Average South Africans had no international business interests and couldn’t have cared less if krugerrands were banned in the rest of the world. But they knew that the Springboks couldn’t play in the Rugby World Cup. And they knew that Zola Budd had to give up her South African passport and become a citizen of Great Britain to win the World Championship and break two world records.

To the average Johan, sports mattered.

The same is true for the average Ivan who wouldn’t know the foreign minister from a Baptist minister, but who knows every stat of every Russian player in the National Hockey League.

If President Basketball Bracket wants to get the attention of the Russian people and send a strong message to Czar Putin the Shirtless, there’s one simple way to do it: revoke the work visas for all of Russia’s hockey stars, send them home and freeze their assets in the United States.

Alexander Ovechkin, captain of the Washington Capitals and arguably the best player in the league, is a friend of Putin’s. If Ovey suddenly found his debit card deactivated and ICE agents at his door, you can bet that the laughter in Moscow would stop in a hurry.

Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk has been in America for 14 years and is a big baseball fan. He might not sit by quietly if Putin’s actions in the Ukraine got him shipped back to Yekaterinburg.

There are currently 33 Russian hockey players enjoying the perks of professional sports in America, including 40-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin, who has spent his entire adult life in Phoenix, Tampa and Chicago (with a couple of stints north of the border in Winnipeg and Edmonton).

Given the option of heading home to an unknown future or “defecting” and continuing to draw a paycheck, you’d have to believe a few would bid the Motherland a fair adieu.

Granted, NHL honchos would have a conniption fit, but not like the full-blown, chest-beating meltdown the Russians would have. Hockey is football in Russia: closer to religion than sport.

If you want Muscovites protesting Putin’s every step and pressuring him to stop his westward advance, hit them where they live. Send their hockey players packing.

Let’s see how many of today’s modern stars give up their lifestyles for a CCCP jersey and the honorary rank of captain in the new Soviet Army.


Steve Eubanks

Steve Eubanks is a New York Times best selling author and award winning sportswriter. A former PGA golf professional, he lives in Georgia with his wife and family. His latest book is called ALL AMERICAN: Two Young Men, the 2001 Army-Navy Game and the War They Fought in Iraq.

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