MOSCOW (Web Desk) – It would be hard to imagine a more perfect birthday for Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, who turned 63 yesterday.
After receiving a report from his defense minister that Russia had launched a major cruise missile strike on Syria – a move further confounding US policy in the Middle East – Putin celebrated his birthday by playing a game of hockey with National Hockey League veterans, and winning.
Donning skates and a uniform, Putin took to the ice in the Shayba Arena in the Black Sea resort of Sochi as a member of a team called Stars of the NHL, which included, among other hockey legends, Pavel Bure, known as the Russian Rocket.
The game was broadcast live on national television as the highlight of a day of adoring homages to the Russian leader.
It wound up with Putin holding aloft a gigantic trophy. Also playing on Putin’s team were Vyacheslav Fetisov and the defense minister who earlier in the day announced the missile strikes, Sergei K. Shoigu.
Passed the puck by the NHL greats over and over again, Putin scored seven goals to lead his team to a 15-10 victory.
The opposing team included three figures on whom the United States had imposed sanctions for Russia’s military action in Ukraine: the businessmen Gennady Timchenko and brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg. The cheering crowd chanted, “Happy birthday!”
Putin founded the amateur hockey league in 2011 with Russian hockey stars, senior officials and longtime associates like the penalized tycoons. The games are regularly broadcast nationally.
And they dovetail with Putin’s well-honed image as a lover of sports and derring-do. On Tuesday, Putin signed a law reviving a Soviet-era fitness program for young people, called “Ready for Labor and Defense.”
After spending most of the past year in international isolation, Putin has been muscling his way back into world affairs. Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine and its military intervention in that country’s eastern provinces led to economically crippling sanctions for Russia. And US officials say Russia’s actions in Syria will only prolong that conflict.
But Wednesday, Putin told Shoigu, his defense minister – who also scored a goal for Putin’s team – that he sees the results of the Syrian action so far as positive.
At the game, Putin spoke of the advantages of staying fit and playing sports, telling the crowd, “Whoever moves and goes toward victory will find it!”
Elsewhere in Russia, the leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, rode with a pro-Kremlin motorcycle gang, the Night Wolves, to celebrate Putin’s birthday.
In the Chechen capital, Grozny, a soccer game was dedicated to the president’s birthday, and a huge banner unfurled on the field. It read: “The best president. Happy Birthday!”