NHL-bound Russian hockey player wants court to reverse his conscription

The lawyer for a Russian goalie who was NHL-bound before being abruptly detained outside a St. Petersburg hockey rink in July asked a court in the Leningrad region Thursday to revoke a decision by the draft board that led to the player being forced into the Russian military. 

Ivan Fedotov, 25, signed an entry-level contract in May with the Philadelphia Flyers. 

He was expected to be at the team’s training camp this summer, but was seized after being suspected by Russia’s military prosecutor’s office of trying to evade military service and was taken to an enlistment office.

Fedotov’s lawyer, Alexei Ponomarev, has filed a lawsuit against Fedotov’s conscription, which the city court in Vsevolozhsk will consider this fall.

Ponomarev told Russian media that he believes the conscription is illegal because Fedotov doesn’t live in St. Petersburg, where he was drafted into the army. He lives outside the city, but is registered in Moscow where he plays hockey.

“If the decision is found to be illegal, then he will be returned, regardless of whether he is already serving or not,” said Ponomarev in an interview with the Russian publication Gazeta. 

Ponomarev did not respond to CBC’s request for an interview.

Russian officials insist the case isn’t political or personal.

On July 23, the president of the Russian Hockey Federation, Vladislav Tretiak, spoke to the Russian outlet Matchtv, and said the law is the same for everyone. 

But Russian conscription experts and outside observers say Fedotov is being punished for his NHL ambitions and desire to leave Russia at a time when its relations with the West are dismal and its political leaders are demanding unreserved loyalty and patriotism from citizens. 

“This is illegal. It violates several articles of the law, but sometimes the authorities resort to this when it is necessary to punish someone and send someone to the army,” said Sergey Krivenko, director of the Moscow-based non-governmental organization Citizen. Army. Law. 

Krivenko, who advises soldiers and their families on the rules of conscription, told CBC that while Russian men between the ages of 18 and  27 must complete one year of army service if they are conscripted, not everyone is called up and there is an arbitrariness around who is and when. 

Sergey Krivenko, director of the non-governmental organization Citizen. Army. Law., says not every young man serves time in the Russian military, as not everyone in the age bracket is automatically called up by the state. He says some avoid conscription through political connections and bribes. (Submitted by

He said exemptions are frequently made for the elite and politically connected, while others may offer bribes. Hockey managers who are motivated to protect their players could simply phone a contact to make a request. 

“They’ll just ask the minister of defence: ’Don’t call this guy. He will skate.'”

Conversely, Krivenko said, if a player has fallen out of favour, hockey officials could request that he be conscripted. 

Stellar season

Fedotov signed a one-year entry level contract with the Philadelphia Flyers, which had drafted the Russian player in the seventh round of the 2015 NHL draft and were looking at him to be the team’s backup goalie.

Upon his detention, the Flyers released a statement saying they were investigating the situation and had no further comment. 

For Fedotov, the NHL deal was the culmination of what was considered a breakout season.

He was the starting goalie for the Russian Olympic Committee team that won the silver medal at the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.

At the end of April, his Russian hockey team, CSKA, won the Kontinental Hockey League’s top prize — the Gagarin Cup, named after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. 

CSKA, once strongly affiliated with the Soviet army, is now owned by Russian oil giant Rosneft, whose CEO, Igor Sechin, is a close longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Yegor Bulchuk, a sports reporter with the online site Championat, said it isn’t an exaggeration to call Fedotov one of the most promising young goaltenders in the world.

When asked if he feels Fedotov is being punished for trying to go to the NHL, he said: ”It’s difficult to say anything accurately and reliably” when it comes to this case. 

Fedotov is reportedly expected to take a military oath on Saturday, nearly one month before his case is expected back in court. 

Fedotov, left, won a silver medal along with the rest of the Russian Olympic Committee team at the Beijing Olympics, and was considered to be having a breakout year prior to his detention. (Reuters)

More hockey players charged 

On Wednesday, two other professional hockey players were in front of a judge in Russia, accused of using a former police officer to help them pay bribes to a military enlistment office in an effort to avoid service. 

It’s been reported by Russian media that both players are under house arrest and could face up to 12 years in prison. 

When it comes to Fedotov’s case, Russian hockey players and officials have said very little publicly. 

One of the few to express support for the goalie is Grigori Panin, a KHL player and captain of the team Salavat Yulaev Ufa.

On Instagram, under a picture he posted of Fedotov, Panin criticized Russia’s “sports circle” for silence, adding that a similar situation could happen to anyone, particularly young players “who glorify Russian abroad and defend our flag at different competitions.” 

He wrote that Fedotov just wants to play hockey, but “someone somewhere doesn’t think so. It’s a precedent for all.”

Panin didn’t respond to CBC requests for an interview.

Sending a message

Slava Malamud, who was previously a Russian sports reporter and is now a math teacher in Baltimore, says hockey in Russia has alway been closely intertwined with politics, and the environment is supercharged now. 

“The powers that be in Russia are pretty much consolidated around the idea that their country is in a fight for its life against the West. So any player leaving is definitely an ideological hit against that idea.”

Slava Malamud, a former Russian sports journalist who now teaches in the United States, has been following Fedotov’s case and believes it sends a message to other KHL players. (Submitted by Slava Malamud)

Fedotov’s detention, along with sanctions and restrictions levied against Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine, led some NHL general managers and league officials to talk about the potential risk and uncertainty of drafting Russian players. But in the draft last month, three went in the first round and 23 were selected overall.

Still, Malamud thinks Fedotov has been made an example of, and every player in the KHL knows this. 

“I think what the message this sends now to the younger players in Russia [is]: ’Get out while the going is good.'”

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