Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, NHL players of Russian descent have not said a great deal in public about the conflict.
Calgary Flames defenseman Nikita Zadorov was an exception to that trend from the very beginning as he sent out an anti-war post on Instagram on February 25, but according to the 28-year-old there was once talk of Russian players coming together to make a joint statement.
According to an interview he gave with Russian journalist Yury Dud published on YouTube, there was a group chat among players on the messaging app Telegram — started by goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky —about presenting a united front and saying something together.
Zadorov says that talks broke down when the players couldn't come to a consensus on what they wanted to say.
"One group wanted to speak about the eight years and all this propaganda stuff," Zadorov said, per the interview's English subtitles. "The other group was the adequate one."
The "eight years" in that case refers to an allegation by Russian president Vladimir Putin that there has been a genocide against Russians occurring in the region of Donbas since 2014 that most news organizations consider to be unsubstantiated, or even fabricated. It has been presented as one of the primary justifications of the invasion.
"It’s his opinion and it’s not my business. It’s his choice," Zadorov says about his country's most famous player. "I respect him as one of the greatest Russian hockey players. We are colleagues, but on political and life views, we disagree."
Over the course of a two-hour interview with Dud, the NHL veteran made the extent of his disagreement crystal clear by calling out the Russian government and war in Ukraine.
"Instead of raising the new generation, we sent them to die," Zadorov said. "It’s up to them now, they can leave the country or stay in this swamp and follow the rules."
Some of his comments on the matter were less serious, and more tongue-in-cheek. For example, when Dud says he's surprised by footage of Putin scoring goals in hockey games, Zadorov deadpanned the following:
"Trump is a very good golf player. He’s scratch. He’s on average 10 shots better than me," he said. "He’s 75 years old and he wins a lot of tournaments in the 50-plus group. He’s always playing a fair game."
Part of what seems to have motivated Zadorov to give this interview is that he understands the position of privilege he's in. Playing in the NHL not only gives him a platform to heard, but also enough distance from Russia for him to feel safer about criticizing Putin and the government than players in Russia.
"I'm sure there are guys in CSKA who don't support the war," he says. "There are guys in the SKA who don’t support the war. They would never say this. Unfortunately, people have to give up on their morals to feed their families. They have no choice.”
While the defenseman isn't under the same strain as players who are currently in Russia, his stance against his country's government still comes with its costs.
Zadorov claims that his relationship with his parents has become more and more distant over the last decade due to politics, his chances of representing Russia in international competition have faded, and he knows that returning to his home country would be inadvisable for him for the foreseeable future.
"If I don’t speak out, who will? I have the opportunity to speak out," he says. "I love my country, I’m a patriot. I hate our government. I see where they are heading."