Adventures in Division I

International hockey even more colourful a step below elite

19-04-11
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Ukrainian solders watch their team play Lithuania from the front row. Photo: Pavlo Kubanov

KYIV – I am currently ten time zones away from my hometown, where the NHL’s top team in 2010-11 could be on track for a run to the Stanley Cup final. But I’m fine with that.

Yes, it would be exciting to watch the Vancouver Canucks, powered by the Sedin twins and Roberto Luongo, knocking off the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs.

But covering the Division I Group B tournament in Kyiv offers a cultural and sporting adventure that the NHL, as great as it is, just can’t match.

The world’s biggest, richest league is more standardized and corporate in its approach. Everyone speaks English (OK, everyone besides Alexander Semin). While Vancouver, Chicago, Montreal, and Boston are all very different cities, once you get inside the arena or hotel, you could be anywhere.

The Kyiv tournament, however, is anything but homogenous.

In some ways, it’s even more colourful because these teams don’t have the same operating budget and perks that the elite nations will enjoy later this month at the 2011 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia.

Typically Team Canada gets its own upscale hotel. Ditto for the Swedes, Russians, and Czechs. But in Kyiv, the Division I teams are all staying at a retro-flavoured, red-carpeted, gold door-framed hotel – along with the IIHF staff and game officials.

I’ve seen interesting things. It goes beyond, say, just crowding into an elevator with a group of tousle-headed British players in shorts and flip-flops. (Or, for that matter, a Nigerian colonel in full uniform – apparently the hotel is also hosting a military conference with various African and Middle Eastern fighting forces.)

For instance, everyone has breakfast in the same dining hall beneath vaulted ceilings. Hours before opening against Estonia at 13:30 on April 17, the team set up its own separate breakfast buffet table, carefully guarded by a dark-suited team official. It was laden with pasta, and all the players were encouraged to consume multiple bottles of water. Now, who knows whether they were in the mood for all this carbo-loading at 9:30 in the morning, but it evidently paid dividends, as Kazakhstan won 5-1.

One morning, I went to the gym, and found an enormous, blue-suited, slick-haired fitness guru instructing an Estonian player on how to get the best abs workout (in the style of the 1976 Soviet Olympic team), while Manowar, Judas Priest, and the Scorpions blasted unrepentantly courtesy of a local radio station. Yoga wear and protein shakes were not in evidence.

When covering games at the venerable Palace of Sports, a five-minute walk down the hill, it’s clear that a good command of Russian would go a lot further in communicating with Group B players than fluency in English. But fellow journalists from Eastern Europe are friendly and helpful when it comes to tracking down post-game interview subjects. (Not too many players here have suited up in North America or speak English – apart from the British, of course.)

Consider Mikhail Proskuryakov, a journalist from Karaganda, Kazakhstan. He is no relation to Metallurg Magnitogorsk goalie Ilya Proskuryakov. He is, however, also a player agent – an interesting double whammy that few North American hockey writers could pull off. Proskuryakov’s clients include Yevgeni Gasnikov, a Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk forward who represented Kazakhstan at the 2008 IIHF World U20 Championship, and Martins Raitums, a goalie who cracked the Latvian roster for last year’s IIHF World Championship, among others.

Anyway, despite being a busy man, Proskuryakov was kind enough to direct me to Fyodor Polishuk in the mixed zone after Estonia-Kazakhstan when I needed a few quotes in English. Based on Polishuk’s resume, I wouldn’t have guessed at his fluency: the 31-year-old left wing has spent his whole pro career in Kazakhstan and Russia.

Polish coach Wiktor Pysz also helped me out after his team’s 5-1 win over Lithuania. I asked him, “Do you have any guys who speak English?” Pysz asked me to repeat the question in German. Luckily, my German’s not too bad. Moments later, there came forward Krystian Dziubinski, whom, I learned later, played junior at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Prep in Michigan, USA.

There’s a story everywhere you look. You learn all kinds of things when you hang out with Estonian medical supervisors and Romanian statistical managers.

I found out that the statistics at this tournament are mostly being handled by former Ukrainian hockey stars. One of them is Valentin Utkin, who was the first captain of Dynamo Kyiv (now Sokil Kyiv) back in 1963, later coached the club, and has reportedly helped more than 30 players graduate to the national team.

Another, Igor Shichkov, was a top Soviet player of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Shichkov won a goal-scoring title and a Soviet League silver medal with Torpedo Gorky (now Nizhni Novgorod), an unusual feat in an era when CSKA Moscow, Dynamo Moscow, Krylia Sovietov, and Spartak Moscow dominated. He’s now in his ‘80s.

Hockey players – and true hockey fans – never truly retire from the sport. No matter how old they are, where they are, or what they’re doing.

I am having fun. (Which, as any good North American hockey player will tell you, is a big key to success – as long as you’re doing what the coach says and sticking with the system.) It’s hard to believe we’ve only played two days’ worth of games.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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