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