ROUEN – Ten years ago Sergi Varlamov played for the Calgary Flames and the St. Louis Blues. Now 33 years old, the forward wants to help rebuild Ukrainian hockey with Donbass Donetsk.
Kyiv-born Varlamov represented his native Ukraine at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, and in seven IIHF World Championships (four in the top division), but had not played professional hockey in Ukraine until 2009, when he played half a season for Sokil Kyiv, the capital city team that participates in the Belarusian league.
2010-2011 he spent his seventh season in Russia’s top league before coming back to Ukraine, this time with Donbass Donetsk.
His limited experience in Ukrainian championships is largely due to the fact that he left home early. He played in Canada as a 16-year-old and made it to the WHL one year later. In his last year as a junior, in 1998, he notched 134 points for the Swift Current Broncos and was named Player of the Year not only of the WHL, but also of the CHL.
He ended up playing 64 NHL games in six seasons as a pro in North America, but didn’t cross the ocean anymore following the lockout and mostly played in Russia’s top league (KHL, formerly Superliga) instead.
“My first goal in the NHL [in 1999-2000] and winning the Calder Cup in the AHL [with the Saint John Flames, 2001] were my best memories. And becoming the best player of the year in the CHL and WHL,” Varlamov said while looking back at his career in North America.
Since the beginning of the season he’s been in Donetsk. The eastern Ukrainian city’s many coal mines and its steel production made some people rich after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Money also flows into sport in the city of roughly one million inhabitants. Football Club Shakhtar Donetsk is a regular Champions League participant while investors also started the rise of a hockey team, Donbass Donetsk, in the recent years.
Hockey in Donetsk dates back to the ‘70s, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union the Druzhba Ice Palace was shut down in 1991. Today’s Hockey Club Donbass Donetsk was founded in 2005 (after a founding and dissolution in 2001) and three years later the city had its ice rink back.
In 2010 the club started to sign top players within Ukraine to win the first-ever national championship. Since this season Donbass Donetsk plays in Russia’s second-tier league VHL where it is currently ranked first in the Western Conference, and second overall only behind reigning champion Rubin Tyumen, a team Donbass defeated in the third round of the Continental Cup.
When getting the offer from Donetsk in the off-season, Varlamov simply couldn’t refuse, he said with a smile.
“It’s my first season. It’s a good club. They make all necessary things for the team that we can win the game,” Varlamov said. “The ambitions of the club made me choose the team.”
It’s not the first time a Ukrainian club tries to reach higher levels than in the national championship. Sokil Kyiv has been doing it for years, either in the Belarusian Extraliga or in Russia’s second tier. But the club didn’t have the same financial background to make it to an even higher level.
Donbass Donetsk, on the other hand, is aiming for more. After rebuilding the ice rink in 2008, the club wants to build a big state-of-the-art arena to join the KHL and hopes to host the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship one day.
“It’s the first year Ukrainian hockey starts to kind of spread out and get more players to Ukraine. Playing at this level is very helpful for Ukrainian hockey,” Varlamov said.
“To have a team like Donbass also helps the other teams and players to look up.”
And by rebuilding Ukrainian hockey with the help of Donbass captain Varlamov and other Ukrainian internationals, the country could maybe make it back among the elite nations one day to where it was until the relegation at the 2007 IIHF World Championship in Moscow.
“I think in the next few years we can manage to get to the Top Division,” Varlamov said. “But for that we need younger guys to step up and follow in the footsteps of older guys, who can’t make the difference anymore right now.”
Ukraine will start its next attempt for promotion in April at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Ljubljana where the national team will face host Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Great Britain and Japan. The best two teams will be promoted to the top division.
But for now, the full focus is on the tasks Donbass Donetsk and Varlamov have in Rouen.
“We want to win the Continental Cup here and then make it to the finals of the VHL and hopefully win there,” he said.
The first step was done on Friday when the Ukrainians edged reigning champion Yunost Minsk, 2-1.
“It was a tough one, but every game is important for us,” Varlamov said. “The first game is always the hardest one and we had a long flight after a league game.”
Donbass had just ended a road trip in the Eastern Conference with a 6-2 win at Sputnik Nizhni Tagil on Tuesday before flying over to France for yesterday’s first game against Yunost. “But we made it through and got the result we wanted. We were the better team and played better than them.”
After defeating Asiago 6-2 on Satuday, the Ukrainians just need to overcome French host Rouen Dragons in the deciding game on Sunday by winning the game or reaching the extra time at least.