- - Tuesday, July 24, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

So Russian president Vladimir Putin may be coming to Washington in the fall to meet with President Trump.

You do know what else happens in Washington in the fall, don’t you? Specifically starting in the month of October? Specifically starting with the first game on Oct. 3, just nine blocks away from the White House?

The Washington Capitals open their season that first Wednesday of October, and will be hoisting the Stanley Cup banner at Capital One Arena that night.

Will Putin want to be on hand to celebrate with his good friend and political supporter, Alex Ovechkin?

I mean, if you’re Putin, and you compare the crowd that showed up for President Trump’s inauguration to the 500,000-plus who came to the city to celebrate the Capitals Stanley Cup championship … well, who do you want a selfie with?

No one knows for sure if Putin is coming, and if he does, when in the fall it might be. But October seems like the likely time, and the further away from the Nov. 6 election day, the better. In this political environment, who knows?

But the Capitals have five home dates in October, and Putin could conceivably be in town for any one of them.

It may be time for the Capitals to bring back Russian Heritage Night.

If Putin’s visit to the White House is politically uncomfortable, imagine what it would be like to have him on hand at Capital One Arena celebrating his favorite hockey player?

Look, Ovechkin may be bulletproof now. He was the toast of the capital of the free world last month, finally leading the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup title. Every photo or video of Ovechkin celebrating only cemented his place as a beloved figure in Washington.

Before the Stanley Cup, Ovechkin skated on his relationship and well-documented support for Putin back in Russia. Here is what the New York Times wrote in November about Ovechkin’s work to back Putin in Russia:

“This month, Mr. Ovechkin announced the creation of a “civic movement” he has called “#putinteam,” a demonstration of support for Mr. Putin, his most powerful admirer, months before the country’s election next year. (The two are close enough that Mr. Putin called Mr. Ovechkin at his wedding reception last summer, and gifted him a premium tea set.)

‘“Let’s come together,’ Mr. Ovechkin wrote, in Russian, in an Instagram post publicizing the new group, attaching a photograph of the two embracing in lily-white shirts, ‘and show the world a strong and united Russia!

“Mr. Ovechkin, 32, insists the idea was his, unconnected to the Russian leader or his allies. ‘Putin’s Team is Putin’s Team,’ Mr. Ovechkin said, in his first extended interview on the subject. ‘It is just for people who support the country, and basically it’s a simple thing.’

But experts in Russian politics and American officials, however, told the paper Mr. Ovechkin was most likely being used as a public relations prop by Moscow.

Ovechkin is in a difficult situation. He has strong roots in Russia, as does his family, and, if we are to believe some of the charges against Putin — who reportedly punishes his political enemies — the hockey superstar may find himself with little choice but to support the Russian president.

This had little, if any impact, on Ovechkin’s popularity in November, when the New York Times article came out early in the Capitals season. And now, with the Stanley Cup on his resume, Ovechkin’s support of Putin will likely mean little, if anything to his fans in Washington. Ovechkin’s life in Russia may mean nothing to Capitals fans. That’s politics, they might argue, and doesn’t belong in sports — a familiar, if futile, refrain these days

But charges that Putin oversaw the cyber interference in American presidential election in 2016 and continues to engineer that campaign against elections in this country — as well as the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into those charges — could change all that.

If it is found that Putin did indeed sabotage American elections, that goes beyond politics. It is the very foundation of our system of government.

There is nothing to indicate that any relationship with Putin will look better in a few months. If it is politics, it’s may be the most toxic and disruptive political issue of our lifetime. And to separate the relationship between Putin and Ovechkin may become more difficult if this snowballs. At what point do people consider that the most popular athlete in the capital of the United States is a very public political supporter of the world leader who many believe is trying to destroy the United States?

On the other hand, the Russian president may be welcomed with open arms at Capital One Arena – as long as he doesn’t commit the crime that Bryce Harper did and wear an opposing jersey.

Thom Loverro’s weekly “Cigars & Curveballs” is available Wednesdays on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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