Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the NHL has found player representation from many countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. 1994 saw the first Russian-born players win the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers, and they have won Cups ever since. Additionally, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Belorussians have found names for themselves in North American rinks over the seasons. There is one country though that we North Americans have at times wrongfully attributed or grouped its players as being Russian, when they are not. We are talking about the Ukrainians of the NHL.
The country with a population of close to 42.5 million people has generated NHL players since the early-1990s. Ukrainians have won Stanley Cups, played in NHL All-Star Games, and have been 30-goal scorers. While there have not been all that many to have played in the league, the ones that have done so have certainly made a difference.
Having considered their successes, THW is now going to present for you the top-5 Ukrainians in the history of the NHL. For the sake of this discussion, we are going to keep our list as strictly players who were born and raised in Ukraine, and have kept their international playing status aligned with their homeland. Therefore, players such as Peter Bondra who was born in Lutsk, Ukraine but who long identified with and played internationally for Slovakia, or Alexei Zhitnik who is from Kiev but who represented Russia at two different Winter Olympics, are excluded.
With the pool for our list narrowed down to where it needs to be, we present to you the best of the NHL’s best Ukrainians:
#5 Igor Chibirev
The Hartford Whalers of the mid-1990s were not hesitant to seek out talent from various Eastern bloc countries. With the collapse of the Soviet Union earlier in the decade and the sudden availability of talent from that neck of the woods, the Whalers enlisted players who were lesser known than their North American counterparts but could potentially be diamonds in the rough. One such player was speedy Ukrainian forward Igor Chibirev.
Chibirev first garnered notice at the 1988 World Junior Championship when he suited up for the Soviet Union alongside Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny. The Soviets would win the silver medal at that year’s tournament.
Having played five straight seasons in Russia for CSKA Moscow, he made the jump to North America for the 1992-93 season. An odd path to take at the time though not uncommon among former Soviets, Chibirev signed with the IHL’s Fort Wayne Komets. Playing in 60 regular-season games, he scored 33 goals and 36 assists for 69 points to go with only two penalty minutes. Chibirev would be Fort Wayne’s leading scorer in that season’s playoffs – seven goals, 13 assists and 20 points in 12 games – as the Komets won the Turner Cup.
Hartford took notice and decided to take a chance when they drafted him in the 11th round of the 1993 NHL Draft. While the Whalers also selected the teenage Chris Pronger in the opening round, Chibirev was already 25 years old and older than the vast majority of his draft class.
Splitting the 1993-94 season between lighting up the IHL nets and being a periphery player for the Whalers, Chibirev would make his NHL debut for Hartford on Nov. 1, 1993 against the St. Louis Blues. He would score his first NHL goal in only his second NHL game on Dec. 7 against the Washington Capitals. Chibirev would wrap up his first NHL season having scored four goals and 11 assists for 15 points in 37 games.
He would have one last hurrah with the Whalers during the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season. Playing in only eight games, Chiberev scored three goals and an assist. All three goals came in the same game – Apr. 5, 1995 against the Pittsburgh Penguins – as he scored a hat-trick. Leaving shortly thereafter, he played eight more seasons in Europe while suiting up for teams in Switzerland, Austria and Germany.
#4 Alexander Godynyuk
The Toronto Maple Leafs selected defenseman Alexander Godynyuk in the sixth round of the 1990 NHL Draft. Not overly large at 6-foot and 200 pounds, Godynyuk was nonetheless solidly built. He was touted enough that within seven NHL seasons he would suit up for four different teams. To some extent, Godynyuk became more a victim of circumstance, as he never fully settled with one particular team. That being the case, he is arguably best remembered as being involved in one of the largest trades in NHL history.
Godynyuk would appear with the Maple Leafs for the first time during the 1990-91 season shortly after being drafted. In 18 games that season he recorded a mere three assists. He would follow that up with three goals and six assists 31 games the next season. Just as he was getting accustomed to NHL play, the Leafs traded Godynyuk with Craig Berube, Gary Leeman, Michel Petit and goaltender Jeff Reese to Calgary in exchange for Hockey Hall of Famer Doug Gilmour, defenseman Jamie Macoun, Kent Manderville, Ric Nattress and Rick Wamsley. Godynyuk would only suit up for 33 games across the season-and-a-half that he played for the Flames.
The NHL would add the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the Florida Panthers for the 1993-94 season. Exposed in the expansion draft, the Panthers would claim Godynyuk. After getting a fresh start and generating a career-high assist total – 10 helpers in just 26 games for Florida – he would surprisingly be moved again. The Panthers traded Godynyuk to the Hartford Whalers on Dec. 16, 1993 in exchange for tough guy Jim McKenzie. Finishing out the season with the Whalers, Godynyuk would have a career year of three goals, 19 assists and 22 points in 69 games.
Though he would spend a considerable amount of time in the minors during the final three seasons of his NHL career, Godynyuk would play for Hartford from 1993-94 through 1996-97. His time as a Whaler would be his most time spent with any one NHL team. Of his 223 career regular-season games, Godynyuk played 115 of them with Hartford. There was of course a brief period of time that both he and Chibirev were teammates with the Whalers.
1996-97 would be the last of his NHL time. Godynyuk would play an IHL season for the Chicago Wolves in 1997-98, but then wrapped up the last three seasons of his career playing in Switzerland and Germany.
#3 Alexei Ponikarovsky
Alexei Ponikarovsky was a big winger who possessed a scoring touch and sound penalty-killing capabilities. At 6-foot-4 and just shy of 230 pounds, the Maple Leafs came calling for his services when they drafted him in the fourth round of the 1998 NHL Draft. He would debut with the team during the 2000-01 season, appearing in 22 regular-season games.
Ponikarovsky would play only parts of the next two seasons in Toronto, while playing primarily for their AHL affiliate the St. John’s Maple Leafs. He would finally play his first full NHL season in 2003-04, appearing in 73 games and scoring nine goals and 19 assists in the process.
After the lockout canceled the 2004-05 NHL season was when Ponikarovsky demonstrated his skill at being a power forward that could convert. From 2005-06 through 2009-10, he scored double digits in goals each season and had four seasons of at least 20 goals. He would set career highs of 23 goals, 38 assists and 61 points in 82 games for the Leafs during the 2008-09 season.
Looking to win back-to-back Stanley Cups, the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Ponikarovsky from Toronto near the 2010 trade deadline. It would be an end to nearly a decade of the big Ukrainian being a member of the Maple Leafs organization. Picking up two goals after arriving in Pittsburgh, Ponikarovsky would hit the 20-goal mark for the final time in his career. Unfortunately for him the Penguins would not repeat as champions, and would be eliminated in the second round of the 2009-10 postseason.
The trade to Pittsburgh would lead to Ponikarovsky bouncing around the NHL for the remainder of his career. In the final three seasons that he played in North America, he had stops with the Los Angeles Kings, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils and Winnipeg Jets. As a member of the Devils, Ponikarovsky came as close as he would ever come to winning a Stanley Cup. After New Jersey acquired him from Carolina partway through the 2011-12 campaign, he helped the Devils all the way to the Stanley Cup Final where they would ultimately lose to the Kings in six games. He would score a lone goal and eight assists while playing in all 24 of the Devils’ playoff games.
Ponikarovsky left the NHL following the 2012-13 season. He would finish out his career with five seasons in the KHL. In total, Ponikarovsky played 678 NHL games and scored 139 goals, 184 assists and 323 points in the regular season.
#2 Dmitri Khristich
Dmitri Kristich is certainly the most talented player on our list, and came really close to being at the very top. He is the all-time leader for goals, assists and points from a Ukrainian-born and trained NHLer.
Khristich played in the Russian Superleague – the predecessor of the KHL – for his hometown club of Sokil Kiev from 1985-86 into 1990-91. Having won a silver medal for the Soviet Union at the 1988 World Junior Championship, the Washington Capitals drafted Khristich with the 120th overall pick of the 1988 NHL Entry.
Starting the 1990-91 season with Sokil, he would join the Capitals organization in December 1990. Khristich would have a 3-game stop with AHL’s Baltimore Skipjacks but spent most of his time with the parent club. He proceeded to score 13 goals and 14 assists in 40 regular-season games for Washington.
Khristich would up those numbers exponentially in his first full NHL season. Playing in 80 games during the 1991-92 season, he set what would be career highs of 36 goals and 73 points. Khristich would play 10 more seasons in the NHL after that, including stops with the Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and a second stint for the Capitals.
He remained a productive player throughout his entire career as Khristich scored double digits in goals for 11 of his 12 NHL seasons. He had two 30-goal seasons and four 20-goal seasons. Khristich would be elected to the NHL All-Star Game in both 1997 and 1999. For the 1997 selection, he was a member of the Kings and finished the season with 19 goals, 37 assists and 56 points in 75 games. He was a member of the Bruins in 1999 and ended setting a career-high of 42 assists that season.
Opting to finish his career in Russia with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Khristich’s final NHL season was 2001-02 with Washington. In 811 NHL regular-season games, he scored 259 goals, 337 assists and 596 points. The 811 games are the second-most by a Ukrainian in NHL history. Khristich played in the postseason on nine separate occasions but never made it beyond the second round.
#1 Ruslan Fedotenko
Ruslan Fedotenko is at the very top of our list. While he may not have been the prolific scorer that Khristich was in the league, Fedotenko found the most success of any Ukrainian in NHL history. He won two Stanley Cups in a career that lasted 12 seasons, and is one of the very few players to score a Cup-winning goal in the seventh game of the Final.
Having gone undrafted, the Philadelphia Flyers signed Fedotenko as a free agent on Aug. 3, 1999. At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, he was built like a tank and very responsible in his own zone. Factoring in an offensive touch, Fedotenko scored double digits in goals through his first 10 NHL seasons. His finest season offensively came in 2005-06 when he tallied 26 goals and 41 points – both career highs – in 80 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Where Fedotenko made the biggest name for himself though was in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He became one of those players who had average to above-average success during the regular season, but became a difference-maker when the Cup was on the line. Perhaps starting off slowly in the earlier parts of the postseason, he would be at his finest in the semi and final rounds.
Fedotenko won his first Stanley Cup in the 2003-04 season with the Lightning. Scoring 12 playoff goals in 22 postseason games, he tied Conn Smythe-winning teammate Brad Richards for the team lead. Fedotenko’s seven even-strength goals and whopping 27.9% for shooting percentage were the best of the 2004 playoffs for any team. As the Lightning would defeat the Calgary Flames in Game Seven by a score of 2-1, the Ukrainian winger scored both of his team’s goals.
Following two more seasons with Tampa and a lone season with the New York Islanders, Fedotenko moved onto the Pittsburgh Penguins. There he became a two-time Stanley Cup champion for the 2008-09 season. Scoring seven goals and seven assists in 24 playoff games, Fedotenko tied with Bill Guerin for fourth in Penguins postseason goals behind Sidney Crosby (15), Evgeni Malkin (14) and Maxime Talbot (8).
Fedotenko’s final season with the Penguins would be 2009-10. He played two seasons after that with the New York Rangers, before playing his final NHL season in 2012-13 with a second stint as a Flyer. Fedotenko finished his NHL career with 173 goals, 193 assists, and 366 points in 863 regular-season games – the most games for any Ukrainian. Ultimately, it is his two Stanley Cup championships that place him at number-one on our list.
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