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Marina Sapunova remembers the day when strangers carrying guns appeared in the children’s playground in her neighbourhood.

“Imagine a playground where lots of little kids are playing with their moms and grandmas, so it’s a very day-to-day park, but then you see armed men just walking around them, sitting on the benches, smoking cigarettes,” Sapunova says.

It was early 2014. Sapunova and her family were living in Donetsk, a city of one million people in Eastern Ukraine.

“When I was a kid, the nickname of Donetsk was ‘the city of a million roses,’ ” she says. “That was true. It was a beautiful place, full of flowers, very clean, with nice people. It’s the best place for the childhood. ... A real sense of community. People are very friendly.”

Sapunova had another reason to stay in Donetsk. Her nine-year-old son, Misha, was a promising hockey player on one of Ukraine’s few rep-level hockey teams.

But now, the “city of roses” was about to become a battleground.

An hour after that unnerving encounter at the playground, Sapunova and her husband packed what they needed, bundled Misha and their daughter into their car, and fled Donetsk for the safety of Kiev.

 

It’s 4 p.m., 30 minutes before a pre-dinner puck drop, when the doors to the hockey arena in Druzhkivka, Ukraine, are unlocked. Dozens of teenage hockey fans rush inside clutching tickets they paid $1 (U.S.) for to line the walkway overlooking one of the nets.

The winter dusk is already beginning to settle on this grey, tired city in Eastern Ukraine as the players for Hockey Club Donbass, wearing their white and red home uniforms, skate onto the ice for warmups.

The fans begin to chant and pound a bass drum — a rhythmic routine that won’t stop until the game’s final buzzer two hours later. Donbass captain Sergei Varlamov, a 37-year-old former St. Louis Blues forward who’s out with a leg injury, signs autographs and poses for pictures rinkside.

The rink’s phone-booth-size concession stand offers green tea and potato chips and hot dogs, but there aren’t many takers.

Money is scarce in Druzhkivka, a city of nearly 65,000 tucked into a belt of coal-mining towns in the northeast corner of Ukraine near the Russian border. Many people here fled the larger, nearby city of Donetsk with little more than the clothes on their backs.

It was April, 2014. Shells were falling on Donetsk, and armed skirmishes spread from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, building to building.

A war had begun between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-backed militants attempting to claim this region of Ukraine as part of Russia. According to the United Nations, the fighting has claimed some 8,000 victims and left about 1.3 million people displaced.

Families have been splintered, and desperate residents must scrounge for everything from food to electricity to medicine.

Yet in the arena, the chants go on. The drums still pound.

 

Ruslan Fedotenko is Ukraine’s biggest hockey star. The 37-year-old native of Kiev broke into the NHL during the 2000-01 season with the Philadelphia Flyers. He played with five NHL teams over 12 seasons, winning Stanley Cups with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009.

Fedotenko had an unlikely introduction to hockey. When he was seven his mother enrolled him in ballet. His father did not approve.

“Mom was proud and said, ‘Come see what I put him in,’ ” Fedotenko says. “Dad came in and saw me dancing there, trying to get poses right, and said, ‘No way.’ He wanted to put me in soccer, but it was the middle of winter. So he put me in hockey."

In the fall of 2012 the NHL locked out its players, leaving Fedotenko unemployed and available.

That’s when he received a phone call from a man named Borys Kolesnikov. He was offering Fedotenko a contract to play hockey back home in Ukraine.

 


Kolesnikov is a Ukrainian billionaire with a dream.

Born in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Zhdanov, near the Russian border, Kolesnikov built a fortune through his political connections and a thriving confectionary business. In 2010, he was appointed Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister of infrastructure.



As a 10-year-old, Kolesnikov had been captivated watching the 1972 Canada-USSR Summit Series.

He later cheered for Sokil, a team based in Ukraine’s capital of Kiev, with homegrown stars such as Dmitri Khristich and Alexei Zhitnik who went on to play in the NHL. Kolesnikov celebrated in 2002 when Ukraine climbed to ninth in the world in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s national rankings, an all-time high for this nation of 45 million.

All of these events fuelled his dream of making Ukraine a hockey country capable of competing against the world’s best.

It seemed an improbable goal. Among the biggest hurdles is the glaring lack of arenas.

“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many hockey rinks became less used than in Soviet times and… were closed and turned into shopping malls and were rented for office space,” says Olena Goncharova, a journalist with the Kiev Post newspaper. “So that’s how we ended up having just 25 hockey rinks all over Ukraine now.”

Contrast that with Canada, which has 2,500 indoor hockey rinks, according to the IIHF.

 

Undaunted, in 2010 Kolesnikov bought HC Donbass, then a five-year-old team sponsored by a local meat processing company. Based in Donetsk, Donbass had immediate success under its new owner. It won Ukraine’s national championship in 2011 and 2012, and then joined Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), regarded as the world’s second-best professional hockey league after the NHL.

To promote his team, Kolesnikov invested in a 24/7 hockey TV channel called Telekanal Hockey, a network widely available throughout the country with the slogan "Hockey comes back to Ukraine."

Kolesnikov also used his political sway to secure the promise of government funding for 60 new hockey arenas throughout the cash-strapped country, where just seven of the 25 existing rinks were big enough to host professional hockey games.

“I have always loved hockey and all the memories about the Soviet hockey were connected with the successful performance of our [national] team,” he says.

“The opportunity arose to create a high-level European club. ...This club should be like a multi-storey building, school as a foundation, junior hockey teams, and main team, which should achieve the best results."

By the summer of 2012, emboldened by the successful Euro soccer championship Ukraine co-hosted with Poland, Kolesnikov’s plan to rekindle hockey in his home country was in full swing. But he needed someone to be the face of his campaign.

He made an overseas phone call, and on July 2, 2013, signed Fedotenko to a three-year deal with HC Donbass.

The 2013-14 season, the team’s second in the KHL, saw Donbass finish second in its division and set a franchise attendance record.

“We wanted fans to love hockey,” Kolesnikov says. “At the beginning, we had either older fans aged more than 45 who remembered hockey during the Soviet times, or young fans. Later, the fan base evened out. Also, many girls and women became fans.”

But as Kolesnikov’s hockey dream began to take shape, a political crisis was brewing. In early 2014 the pro-Russian government in Ukraine was ousted. Because the eastern sector of Ukraine has a large population of ethnic Russians, Russia responded by sending troops and weapons to the region.

In the midst of the crisis Donbass advanced to the KHL conference semi-finals against Prague. But they were told they had to play all their home games in Bratislava, Slovakia. The KHL had decided the situation in Donetsk was too dangerous. Donbass lost the series in six games.

 

Fedotenko wasn’t overly concerned with the growing political tension. Growing up in the shadow of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, he and his elementary-school classmates were taught how to put on a gas mask.

“I didn’t worry too much about my safety, I just kind of roll with the punches,” Fedotenko says.

After the loss in the semi-finals, Fedotenko left to join his wife in the U.S. On his way home, he stopped in Donetsk to pick up his things. At Donetsk airport, his plane was surrounded by Ukrainian soldiers with machine guns before it departed.

Two days later, Donetsk’s airport was closed. Before long it was in shambles, a scarred and burned-out victim of bombing and looting. And then in May 2014, looters reached Druzhba Arena, Donbass’ home rink.

The arena was ransacked and set on fire.





Safely back in the U.S., Fedotenko was shocked when he saw photos of the devastation caused by the fighting.

“It’s like shots from the moon,” Fedotenko says. “Everything is grey with craters everywhere because of all the shelling. So destroyed. The sad part is that part of Ukraine was starting to revive in the last five years. They built a brand new airport. They built a soccer field; they built a hockey rink. ...And the city revived: nice hotels, restaurants, businesses. It came alive. Now everything is destroyed.

“The kids are trained now; when they hear the whistle of the bombs — the shelling, a certain pitch — they know exactly what they need to do. They train every day to get down under the table, to a shelter,” he says. “That’s the norm, but it shouldn’t be."

In June 2014, weeks after its arena was set ablaze, Donbass announced that it wouldn’t play in the KHL in 2014-15. Donetsk was scheduled to host the 2015 World Hockey Championships, but the International Ice Hockey Federation moved it to Krakow, Poland.

“The tragic events in Eastern Ukraine were the only thing that caused the non-participation of Donbass in the KHL,” Kolesnikov says. “It doesn’t depend on the hockey players or the club. We hope that this terrible period in our history will end."

Kolesnikov’s dream was officially on life support.

THE ARENA FELL UNDER THE CONTROL OF PRO-RUSSIAN FORCES.

 

Every year, Alexei Zhitnik returns from his home in the U.S. to Kiev to visit family and check on his local investments.

Zhitnik also stays connected with Ukraine’s hockey scene, and the 43-year-old former NHL defenceman has his doubts about the country’s potential as an international power in the sport.

He says the dream of competing with the likes of Canada, Russia and the U.S. faced long odds – even before the war with Russian militants.

“It’s not like you build a factory and in two or three years it starts working and everybody’s happy,” he says. “It’s a long process. Kids come to the hockey schools, six, seven years old. You need 10 years at least to teach them. ...As of right now, we have one rink under construction in Kiev — two small rinks, one old one under construction. Basically for three million people in the city, that’s not even close to bring to people’s attention so parents can bring their kids to hockey school.”

So how long might it take to create a national team program capable of competing with the world’s best?

“Fifty years,” Zhitnik says. “And when I’m saying 50, that’s positive.”

 

Having fled their home in Donetsk, HC Donbass settled in Druzhkivka, largely because the city is home to one of Ukraine’s seven indoor hockey rinks large enough to accommodate a pro-level team.

The rink can seat just 400 people, one-tenth the capacity of the arena in Donetsk that was destroyed. Tiny by North American standards, it’s at least big enough to accommodate an over-the-ice catwalk and a series of cameras to capture game footage.

They now play in an eight-team professional Ukrainian league that one player wryly says offers “almost as good hockey as you’d find in Poland.” Home games are televised on national TV; production costs are paid for by Kolesnikov, of course.

Kolesnikov is also covering the costs for rep youth hockey teams in both Kiev and Druzhkivka, including cash to help players’ parents cover rent in a new city after leaving Donetsk. He's also kicking in for travel costs for tournaments in countries including Belarus and Slovakia.

"To drop the team means to take the dream away from the thousands of boys playing hockey in Donetsk region,” Kolesnikov says. "It’s impossible. The last thing that can be done is to drop the team."

 

Kolesnikov says he has a plan to rekindle his country’s hockey fortunes. The arena in Donetsk can be repaired in three months, he says. As soon as peace returns.

"I’m an optimist, otherwise, I wouldn’t deal with hockey in Ukraine,” Kolesnikov says. “We have a chance to become a hockey country, a real hockey country. What does it mean to be the real hockey country? It means we should have 10 to 12 high-level clubs, and the Ukrainian team should be ... participating constantly in the World Championships and the Olympic Games. I believe we can achieve it."

A skeptic walking down the streets here might find Kolesnikov’s optimism difficult to believe.

Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-supported separatists continue to fight in deserted towns near Donetsk, even in the face of a year-old ceasefire. Soldiers patrol the streets of Druzhkivka, watching passersby from behind sandbag-protected checkpoints under bridges.

In the town of Slovyansk, a quick 20-minute drive from where the professional and youth hockey players skate in Druzhkivka, there are streets of bombed-out houses and overgrown yards. Sheet-metal roofs and building walls have been shredded with shrapnel, and stretches of grass, where cows graze freely, are said by locals to be peppered with landmines.

Marina Sapunova watches as her son, Misha, darts across centre ice, accepts a pass, crosses the blueline and fires a wrist shot high over the glove of the goalie. Sheludchenko is among the top scorers on his youth team in Kiev, and if he had his way, he’d stay out on the ice, carving figure eights and working on his shot long after practice was over.

It’s been two years since the armed men in the playground, two years since the family fled Donetsk and came to Kiev.

Later that night, Misha pulls a well-used table hockey game from under a chair in his family’s apartment. He looks up at a visitor and motions that it’s time to play. In broken English, he says he hopes to join Alex Ovechkin on a Washington Capitals forward line one day.

That Ovechkin is a Russian and Misha a Ukrainian isn’t a distinction that resonates with the nine-year-old, whose evening routine includes watching NHL highlights posted on YouTube.

 

 

Sapunova cuts vegetables and prepares dinner in the small Kiev apartment’s kitchen. A visitor asks whether she’s bothered that the world’s gaze has shifted away from Ukraine.

"We don’t live in an ideal world and there are many, many other problems and lots of conflicts around the world and there are conflicts that we here in Ukraine don’t pay attention to,” she says. "So you can’t really expect, you know, all the countries around the world to be focusing on Ukraine only."

At a time when she’s not sure where her family will be in the coming weeks, and whether she’ll even see her home again in Donetsk, Sapunova says hockey has helped give her family a sense of routine and a distraction from more upsetting events.

“You think of choosing one thing that you really love doing, something that inspires you to go on living, to open new horizons, to dream for something big … that’s what hockey gives to my son,” she says. “It’s not just a stick to hold on to in [difficult] times. It’s something that helps him dream big and continue life and strive for more. That’s what’s important."

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