Agent for Russian-born NHL players says clients faced threats and discrimination after Ukraine invasion

NHL players’ agent Dan Milstein, who represents the majority of Russian-born players in the league, told ESPN his clients experience “worrying levels” of harassment and believes draft-eligible players are already discriminated against due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The discrimination and racism that these Russian and Belarusian players are facing right now is remarkable,” Milstein told ESPN in an interview on Tuesday. “We go back 30 years. I have players calling me, parents calling me. They wonder if they will be able to play, if they will be safe.”

Milstein, who was born in Kiev, Ukraine, immigrated to the United States in 1991 at the age of 16 as a political refugee. He is now an American citizen and represents more than 75% of NHL players born in Russia and Belarus, including Tampa Bay Lightning stars Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy and New York Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin.

Milstein also represents Flames defenseman Nikita Zadorov, one of the few NHL players to publicly denounce the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Zadorov, 26, born in Moscow, posted a “No war” message on Instagram on Friday. Zadorov is already experiencing repercussions for his speaking out, including a flurry of derogatory messages on his account.

“While some of my clients can speak freely in the safety of being in North America, their families could be watched at home and anything could happen,” Milstein said. “I’m a proud American so I’m asking let’s unite. My own childhood home is bombed as I talk to my friends back home. I haven’t slept in six days because it’s such a time difficult. But people go after the wrong crowd. I can speak for my clients: they want world peace like everyone else. They don’t get treated like that.

According to Milstein, one of his clients was on the road this week and was harassed by someone on the street.

“He was shouted at, ‘Go back to your country’ and called a Nazi and other words,” Milstein said. “Customers are called Nazis. People wish they were dead. They’re human beings. They’re hockey players. United States and Canada and doing all kinds of charity work at home. Stop thinking of them as aggressors. Stop being racist.

Milstein said several of his NHL clients have received death threats. An NHL player’s wife posted a picture of their baby on Instagram, then received direct messages where she was told she had “Nazi kids,” according to Milstein.

“My clients aren’t as nervous for themselves,” Milstein said. “But when they’re on the road and they have a wife and a newborn baby at home who are alone, there are big worries.”

On Monday, the NHL released a statement condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The NHL suspended relationships with business partners in Russia and also suspended the NHL’s Russian-language social and digital media sites. The NHL also said it was “concerned about the welfare of Russian players” – which Milstein said the league followed.

The agent said every team so far had responded to his and the players’ requests for extra security, which he said he was “very grateful for”.

While Milstein thinks his NHL players’ jobs are secure because of guaranteed contracts, he questions the barriers for future players and future opportunities. On Tuesday, equipment maker CCM announced that it would stop using Russian actors in global marketing campaigns.

Milstein represents 15 Russian-born players in the 2022 NHL Draft class he expected to be drafted, including potential first-round players. He thinks a lot of those players are already seeing their draft stock drop, and he wonders if some will drop out of the draft altogether because of the war.

“Some hockey executives have already expressed concern in the upcoming draft whether these players will ever be able to get out. [of Russia] and play, and some of them are concerned about public opinion when certain players are drafted,” Milstein said. “I try to understand teams, and of course public opinion matters, but that’s sheer discrimination. And these are young men’s lives that we’re talking about. Innocent young men who are now being punished.”

The USHL and CHL are considering banning Russian players from being drafted next year, which Milstein said would “crush the dreams of these teenagers and potentially change the trajectory of their entire careers.”

“I have several owners and general managers in these leagues who tell me they don’t agree,” Milstein said. “But they also tell me that they can’t say it publicly because of the fear of public opinion.”

Milstein also represents dozens of players from the American Hockey League and junior leagues across the United States and Canada who have also expressed concern about their current situation.

One of Milstein’s clients in the Canadian Hockey League, who is Belarusian, was booed by his own team in the locker room last week. The player brought the incident to the attention of the general manager and then it happened again in the last 48 hours.

“People need to be aware that this is happening,” Milstein said. “It’s racism, and it has to stop.”

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