The PHF and Russia’s largest tech company share the same chairman

NWHL Isobel Cup Playoffs - Championship
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Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, sports federations and leagues have played a major role condemning Russia’s actions.

Russian athletes are currently barred by most Olympic sport federations, FIFA kicked Russian clubs and national teams out of international competitions, and leagues around the world have issued statements of support and organized fundraising efforts for Ukraine.

But the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), a women’s professional hockey league in North America that will conclude its seventh season this weekend with the 2022 Isobel Cup Final, has remained silent on the topic of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. 

The chair of the PHF’s board of governors, American John Boynton, is also the chairman of Yandex, Russia’s largest technology company. The company was recently described by Wired as “Russia’s Google, Uber, Spotify, and Amazon combined.”

While Yandex rose to prominence as a search engine, it has become a ubiquitous presence in all aspects of life in Russia. The company’s many apps are used for everything from hailing a ride to aggregating news to paying for a meal.

Boynton, a founding shareholder of Yandex who lives in the Boston area, has been a non-executive director since 2000, and was appointed as Chairman of the Board in 2016. He credits his Russian entrepreneurial ambitions to a trip he took to the Soviet Union as a junior in high school. In addition to Yandex, Boynton also co-founded Russian companies CompTek and Intranet.

And in recent years, he has become one of the most important figures in women’s professional hockey.

His company, BTM Partners, currently owns three of the six teams in the PHF, which rebranded from the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) last year. The three teams are technically chaired by three people: John is responsible for the Metropolitan Riveters, his wife Johanna oversees the Toronto Six, and business partner Miles Arnone chairs the Boston Pride. While the league recently announced that the Toronto Six is being sold to an all-BIPOC group that includes Angela James, that sale has not yet been finalized.

In a February 1 episode of the Sporticast podcast, Boynton was asked about rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

“The last thing anybody wants to see is war,” Boynton said, before adding “Personally, I don’t think it will come to that.”

But of course, it did come to that.

Throughout the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Yandex has reportedly played a role in suppressing factual information while promoting state-run media sources. The company — which is registered in the Netherlands, but headquartered in Moscow — has tight ties to the Kremlin.

“Now you get more and more propaganda results before you get search results,” former Yandex board member Esther Dyson told RFE/RL after resigning from her post on March 7.

“First you have the advertising, then the propaganda, then you have the news. You cannot get that information [about the war] on Yandex anymore.”

On March 15, the European Union (EU) sanctioned Yandex executive director and deputy CEO Tigran Khudaverdyan with an asset freeze and travel ban. According to the EU report, Khudaverdyan attended a meeting of oligarchs at the Kremlin with Putin on February 24, 2022, to “discuss the impact of the course of action in the wake of Western sanctions.”

The EU report continued: “The fact that he was invited to attend that meeting shows that he is a member of the inner circle of oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin and that he is supporting or implementing actions or policies which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, as well as stability and security in Ukraine. Furthermore, he is one of the leading business persons involved in economic sectors providing a substantial source of revenue to the Government of the Russian Federation, which is responsible for the annexation of Crimea and the destabilisation of Ukraine.”

Khudaverdyan resigned from his role, with Boynton issuing the following statement on behalf of Yandex: “We were shocked and surprised to learn that Tigran was designated under EU sanctions, and we are extremely sorry to see him step down from his Executive Director and Deputy CEO roles.”

But on the topic of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Boynton has remained silent.

On Her Turf reached out to Boynton for comment on Yandex’s role in suppressing information about the war in Ukraine, if he has any plans to step down from as chairman of the Yandex board, and whether the company’s financial losses will impact a $25 million commitment to the PHF that Boynton spearheaded earlier this year.

A statement from Boynton, provided via PHF Senior Vice President of Communications Paul Krotz, did not address any of the questions about Boynton’s role with Yandex or Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Boynton’s statement in-full reads: “The $25 million the PHF announced in January is a collective pledge from the Board of Governors and nothing has transpired to impact this commitment. Details regarding expansion, new ownership groups, and additional investors as part of the Toronto Six sale will all be announced at a later date. In the meantime our focus is on this weekend’s Isobel Cup Playoffs in Tampa Bay that will provide an exciting end to an historic 2021-22 season.”

The PHF did not respond to any of On Her Turf’s questions, beyond providing Boynton’s statement, including whether the league has any comment on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or Boynton’s position at Yandex.

The PHF/NWHL has long struggled with transparency and accountability, from the league’s burst “bubble” season in Lake Placid to the absence of salary minimums or a minimum salary cap. Next season will mark the first year that players – nearly all of whom work second or third jobs – receive healthcare coverage.

While the PHF’s ties to Yandex are arguably much tighter given their shared chairman, it is not the only American sports league connected to the Russian technology company. In 2019, the NHL and Yandex formed a partnership that made Yandex the broadcast home for NHL games in Russia, with a multi-year contract extension signed in January.

But after Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, the NHL on February 28 announced that the league was suspending its relationship with its Russian business partners, which included Yandex. According to ESPN, NHL games weren’t going to be pulled from Yandex immediately, but “the plan is to remove NHL content from the site for the foreseeable future.”

Correction: This story previously listed Willie O’Ree as one of the new owners of the Toronto Six, but O’Ree actually joined the ownership group of the Boston Pride. 

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.

How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.

Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.

More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.