Does Ukrainian Hockey Bleed to Survive?

Ice hockey in Ukraine is the winter sport number one loved my millions of people all over the country. Ukrainian clubs starred in the Soviet league. The nation’s many hockey players have done so in the Soviet Vysshaya Liga, in the NHL and other North American and European leagues. Now they are well-represented in the Russian leagues and in Europe. The past achievements, however, are of little help when it comes to the game’s survival in the socio-politically severe winter of 2013-14.

The current national ice hockey championship shows that the game is severely under financed in Ukraine. Hockey’s popularity is based on the love of people, but severely depends on good media coverage. The prosperity of the sport in the future is dim and it will come only in case the game develops both as a professional sport for top level performers and millions of followers and as a grassroots sport movement open for kids and adults alike in all the areas of the country and all kinds of settlements ‒ small and big.

National championship faltering under way

The current national championship is being played by six teams under the aegis of the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine. The previous championship, though, was organized and carried out by the Professional Hockey League (PHL), which failed to summon the teams and organize them into the championship in fall 2013. The switching of the championship’s organizers was a testimony of great difficulties and eventually impossibility to carry it out under the aegis of the PHL. Luckily for the players, the teams and the game’s followers the national ice hockey federation stepped in, brought the teams to the table where they found a consensus and now are well under way with their games in the championship. Currently the championship is nearing its Christmas break. The leaders (Biliy Bars and Kompanyon-Naftogaz) and outsiders (Vinnytski Haydamaky) have already become clear, although the mid-level teams (Generals and Sokil from Kyiv, Levy from Lviv) are still able to surprise their fans and competitors after the break.

The dire straits of many professional teams

Although the championship itself was saved from a menacing disaster of being missed out upon, the absolute majority of the Ukrainian professional teams are on the edge of bankruptcy and, thus, closure. The legendary Sokil Kyiv, the 1985 bronze medalist of the Soviet championship and the home team of many legendary players, is in the salary arrears with its players for the current and the previous seasons. Other teams, including Levy from Lviv and Vinnytski Haydamaky, barely manage to make their ends meet. The situation of the rest of the teams is very far from perfect, too. One exception in the national championship is Biliy Bars from Bila Tserkva, the farm club of Donbass Donets’k – the team that deserves special attention in this article.

HC Donbass a happy exception

The hockey club Donbass from Donets’k stands alone among the Ukrainian hockey teams both for its recent successes and financial stability. Owned by an influential politician, successful businessmen and hockey aficionado Boris Kolesnikov, the team competes in the Continental Hockey League against the Russian and Eastern European hockey giants like Dinamo, TSKA from Moscow and the like.

Donbass goes strong on place three in the CHL’s Western conference and is set for the play-offs. Well-scouted recruitment, good motivation and the best coaches (currently Andrey Nazarov, who substituted Julius Shupler) on the market bring good results. The team is not only going strong this season, but also managed to win the IIHF’s continental cup in the past season along with the national championship (but no CHL playoff for that).

The national team’s ups and downs

The national team plays in the IIHF’s Division I Group A. It is preparing for the world championships in April 2014 to take place in South Korea. There Ukrainians will compete against the national teams of Austria, Hungary, Japan, Korea, and Slovenia. The task is to upgrade and potentially play in the IIHF’s top division.

The problem with the task is, however, that the team does not have enough domestic talent to draw upon. The players who were coached as children in the nineties and the first post-millennium years mostly could not develop their talents to the levels of top-level hockey. Those two decades were the time of deprivation in Ukraine in every line of life, including sufficient ice time for hockey players.

A possible solution of the above problem would be to naturalize Russian players, who do not make it into their national team. This method proved to be effective back in the

Ukraine Hockey
Ruslan Fedotenko might be called to help a Ukrainian team. (Icon SMI)

seventies and eighties of the last century, when the country’s capital was creating th top-level hockey club known as Sokil Kyiv. A few players have been naturalized in 2013, the team might also count upon such Ukrainian ex-NHLers as Oleksiy Ponikarovskiy and Ruslan Fedotenko.

If the national team makes it through into the IIHF’s top division, the popularity of the game in Ukraine might soar to the skies.

Children love hockey whatever the odds

Children hockey in Ukraine develops only in the country’s major cities like Kyiv, Donets’k, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, and L’viv. The interest with which children (99.9% of them are boys) and their parents are engaged in the training process speaks for the good prospects of the game in the country. But if the game is developed only in a few major cities of the country and the championship remains as unstable as it currently is, the national team will never be competitive on the world arena.

Nevertheless, U13, U14, U16 and junior national championships are taking place in this winter. Thus, young hockey players are competing nationally and many of them are eager to go into hockey professionally.

Concluding, it needs to be said that perseverance has been the key to survival of ice-hockey in Ukraine. All stakeholders of the game have shown more than enough of that. The current situation demands, however, that perseverance be coupled with professionalism of hockey leadership, state support and generosity of sponsors and club owners. If that help does not arrive, the decades of the Ukrainian ice hockey’s bleeding will be gone for nothing.

V’yacheslav Hnatyuk