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Putin’s Pucks: The oligarchs and politicians behind Russian hockey

Kremlin.ru (via Wikimedia Commons)

Several weeks ago, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin expressed his gratitude to a select few responsible for what he referred to as their “outstanding contribution to the development of national hockey.” Within the decree, Putin listed various oligarchs, longtime associates, as well as noted confidants.

Sports Politika obtained a copy of the decree (Russian language only).

The document mentioned Arkady Rotenberg, the Chairman of the Board of the Russian Hockey Federation (RHF), vice-president of the RHF Roman Rotenberg, as well as chairman of the board of the Continental Hockey League (KHL), Gennady Timchenko. Alexander Medvedev, the deputy head of natural gas company ‘Gazprom’ was also among the 100 names listed. However, it is the aforementioned names that highlight the political influence behind hockey in Russia.

Arkady Rotenberg is one of Putin’s old judo teammates and is on the committee of the International Judo Federation. He is also the owner of the HC Dynamo Moscow professional hockey team. Along with his brother Boris, the Rotenbergs own the SGM (Stroygazmontazh) group, the largest construction company for gas pipelines and electrical power supply lines in Russia. His fortune is estimated at $1.26 billion and much of that was likely due to his advantageous friendship with the president of Russia.

Back in 2011, an internal council in the Ministry of Education began to check all textbooks used in Russian schools. Many did not meet the supposed standards and were removed form the syllabus. By 2013, Rotenberg had purchased Enlightenment Publishing House and was awarded about 70% of the contracts for new textbooks. It should be noted that the removed textbooks were mainly competitors of Enlightenment Publishing House, leaving little doubt that Putin’s friend profited in the textbook purge.

Rotenberg, who was named in the Panama Papers, also received the most state orders in 2015. His construction company, StroiGazMontazh, received state orders worth 555 billion rubles ($7.3 billion), according to Forbes. Another of Putin’s close friends, Gennady Timchenko, was ranked third in state orders in 2015 (161 billion rubles [$2.1 billion]). Timchenko was another of the aforementioned names on the Putin’s list.

Timchenko, the founder of Volga Group, has an estimated fortune of $15.3 billion USD. He is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), and President of the SKA (St. Petersburg) ice hockey club. Timchenko teamed up with the Rotenberg brothers, Arkady and Borsi, to purchase Helsinki’s Hartwall Areena. They also bought a stake in Jokerit, the six-time national champion of the Finnish top-level ice hockey league Liiga and eventually transferred the team to the Kontinental Hockey League for the 2014-15 season.

Apart from hockey, Timchenko has a particular affinity for tennis and chess. He is believed to have sponsored several Russian players in the past, as well as the Finnish Davis Cup team. The Finnish citizen was another of Putin’s old Judoka teammates and even reportedly founded a judo club together. He later founded the Timchenko Foundation, which promotes the development of the ice hockey and chess among young people.

Timchencko is an interesting case because he rose from relative obscurity to become a member of Putin’s inner circle and one of the richest people in Russia. His oil interests and construction deals in Sochi helped push that along. The United States even included him in the sanctions placed on oligarchs.

Naturally, Putin denied any involvement in oligarch business activities back in 2011.

“Timchenko got into business … from the very start, when privatization was allowed. And I assure you … it was absolutely without my participation,” Putin said.

Another interesting investor in Russian hockey is Alexander Medvedev, the first president of the KHL. He is also the president of SKA Saint Petersburg hockey club and Russia’s representative to the International Ice Hockey Federation Council. Back in 2009, Medvedev revealed interest in purchasing three unnamed NHL teams, though later claimed that the commissioner was not interested in Russian ownership. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly later denied ever speaking to Medvedev.

Medvedev is currently Deputy Chairman of the Management Committee of Russian energy company Gazprom.

Putin appears to have entrusted national sports like hockey to a select few confidants with established networks and influence in Russia. Through oligarch involvement in Russian hockey, the intersection between sports, politics, and culture are made clear. Politicians and oligarchs use their sports investments to impress Putin, their old judo teammate.

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