Agent for Russian-born NHL players says clients dealing with threats, discrimination after invasion of Ukraine

NHL player agent Dan Milstein, who represents a majority of the Russian-born players in the league, told ESPN his clients are experiencing "disturbing levels" of harassment and believes draft-eligible players are already being discriminated against because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"The discrimination and racism these Russian and Belarusian players are facing right now is remarkable," Milstein told ESPN in an interview on Tuesday. "We're being set back 30 years. I have players calling me, parents calling me. They're concerned whether they'll be able to play, whether they'll be safe."

Milstein, who was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, immigrated in the United States in 1991 at age 16 as a political refugee. He is now a U.S. citizen and represents more than 75% of the NHL's Russian- and Belarusian-born players, including Tampa Bay Lightning stars Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy and New York Islanders goalie Ilya Sorokin.

Milstein also represents Flames defenseman Nikita Zadorov, one of the few NHL players to speak out publicly against Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The 26-year-old Zadorov, who was born in Moscow, posted a "No War" message to Instagram on Friday. Zadorov is already experiencing repercussions from speaking out, including a flurry of derogatory messages to his account.

"While some of my clients can speak freely in the safety of being in North America, their family could be scrutinized back home and anything could happen," Milstein said. "I'm a proud American, so I ask let's come together united. My own childhood home is being bombed as I speak to my friends back home. I haven't slept in six days because this is such a difficult time. But people are picking on the wrong crowd. I can speak on behalf of my clients: They want world peace like everybody else. They're not being 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 yelled at to, 'Get back to your country,' and was called a Nazi and other words," Milstein said. "Clients are being called Nazis. People are wishing that they are dead. These are human beings. These are hockey players. These are guys contributing to our society, paying millions of dollars in taxes to support the U.S. and Canada and doing all kinds of charity work back home. Stop looking at them as aggressors. Stop being racist."

Milstein said several of his NHL clients have received death threats. One NHL player's wife posted a photo of their infant child 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 are on the road, and they have a wife and a newborn child at home that are alone, there are major concerns."

On Monday, the NHL put out a statement condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The NHL has suspended relationships with business partners in Russia and also paused the NHL's Russian-language social and digital media sites. The NHL also said it was "concerned about the well being of the players from Russia" -- something Milstein said the league has followed through on.

The agent said all teams so far have accommodated his and players' requests for extra security, something he said he is "very grateful for."

While Milstein believes his NHL players' employment is safe due to guaranteed contracts, he wonders about barriers for future players and future opportunities. On Tuesday, equipment manufacturer CCM said it would stop using Russian players in global marketing campaigns.

Milstein represents 15 Russian-born players in the 2022 NHL draft class that he projected to be selected, including potential first-rounders. He believes many of those players are already seeing their draft stock fall, and he wonders whether some will slip out of the draft altogether because of the war.

"Some hockey executives have already expressed concern in the upcoming draft whether those players will ever be able to come out [of Russia] and play, and some of them are concerned about the public opinion when certain players are drafted," Milstein said. "I try to understand the teams, and of course public opinion matters, but this is pure discrimination. And these are young men's lives 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, something 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 those leagues telling me they disagree with it," Milstein said. "But they are also telling me they can't say this publicly because of the fear of public opinion."

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

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 within the past 48 hours.

"People need to be aware that this is going on," Milstein said. "This is racism, and it needs to stop."