DONETSK – Six years ago Ukraine played at the top division of the World Championship. Now the team in yellow and blue are looking for an upward exit and a new generation of hockey players.
Following last season's relegation from the Division I Group A, Ukraine will be seeking immediate promotion from the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I group B played on home ice at the Ice Palace Druzhba in Donetsk. One Kyiv-born former player who knows all about what it takes to achieve success at the very highest level is Dmytro Khrystych, a former NHL stalwart and World Champion, today working as assistant coach for Ukraine's national team.
After an illustrious career spanning 811 regular NHL-season games, the highly skilled left-winger and centre Khrystych decided to hang up his skates and return to his native Ukraine following two final seasons in Russia with Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The year was 2005, and Khrystych had then been carving out a career far away from his native Kyiv since the end of 1990, when the city had still by the skin of its teeth been a part of the Soviet Union.
Returning home as a former player, the conditions available for hockey was now a far cry from when he set off to make a new for himself across the Atlantic.
"Following the years after Ukraine gaining independence, ice hockey in the country was not given the right amount of attention, neither from the government or from people with money, which left the hockey schools and the teams without sufficient financial backing," he said.
When the now 43-year-old Khrystych was growing up in Kyiv, it was in a different system, both on and off the ice. In Soviet Union, Sokil Kyiv, was the most successful Ukrainian team. They competed in the highly competitive Soviet Championship, finishing as high as third back in 1985 and were developing the vast majority of top hockey talent in the region, which apart from Khrystych also has included NHL All-Star defenceman Olexi Zhitnik and Stanley Cup Champion Ruslan Fedotenko to name just a few.
"Growing up in Kyiv during Soviet times, I was only 10 years old when being picked among the 20-25 of the most talented kids that were to form a team at the hockey school at Sokil," he said. "We went to the same classes, same practices so we were like one big family," said Khrystych about his time as a budding player in what is now the capital of Ukraine.
Showing early promise, Khrystych skipped fourth grade at the Sokil hockey school to even further speed up his development. He was 16 when he made his debut for the Sokil first team and had already become a regular the following season. At an international level, he was 20 when he got the nod from Viktor Tikhonov ahead of the 1990 World Championship in Switzerland where he returned home with a gold winners' medal around his neck.
Featuring for the Soviet Union at the Goodwill Games in Seattle later the same year whetted Khrystych's appetite to try his luck in North America. With the Soviet Union on the verge of disintegration he was 21 when he made the move to North America in December 1990. Khrystych was to spend 12 seasons in the NHL, starting off at the Washington Capitals but also later also donning the jerseys of Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs clocking up 596 points in the process and also appearing in the 1997 and 1999 NHL All-Star Games.
But while Khrystych was busy making a name for himself across the pond, Ukraine celebrated independence and also saw its national ice hockey federation became a member of the IIHF in May 1992.
Hopes were high for Ukraine to have an impact within the hockey. Sokil was allowed to play in the Russian top league until it closed its borders for foreign teams in 1996, and the newly formed national team started to swiftly ascend upwards. From 1999 until 2007 the team in yellow and blue were a regular presence in the top division of the World Championship, with 2002 being their most highly successful year to date when Khrystych starred in an influential role in the Ukraine team that played at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and then a few months later claiming a fine ninth spot at the World Championship held in Sweden.
But it was to be a false dawn. The success of the Ukraine national team was a success based on the old system where most of the players had been schooled during the Soviet era. Adjusting to new times, Ukrainian hockey proved to be far more difficult. In search for hockey of a higher calibre, ambitious players crossed the border to Russia where the rules regulating the number of non-Russian on the rosters were still relaxed at the time.
An exodus of Ukrainian top talent that were to be lost for good followed, such as Oleg Tverdovsky – a 2002-03 Stanley Cup winner, born in Donetsk who opted to play for Russia, while Nikolai Zherdev and Anton Babchuk both began playing hockey with Sokil Kyiv before moving to Russian hockey as juniors to the detriment of the Ukrainian national game.
The consequence of the player exodus has been a lost generation. Two years ago the Professional Hockey League (PHL) was launched in Ukraine, hoping to raise the level of the national game. Khrystych who works as Head Supervisor of the PHL, admits it is a league that has fallen on hard times following the financial crisis, with the number of teams taking part for next season still very much being up in the air.
"The first year for the new league was hard," admits Khrystych. "But the second year became even harder as we lost our main sponsor and many of the participating teams ran into financial difficulties."
But while the traditional Ukrainian teams have been hit hard with monetary constraints, no such problems seem to exist in in the eastern part of the country where Donbass Donetsk is quickly finding its feet and adjusting well to the new times.
The young club was founded in 2005 and is financed from the deep pockets of Boris Kolesnikov, a man who also is vice-president of FC Shakhtar Donetsk, the city's highly successful soccer club. Shakhtar has tasted regular success on both domestic and international level thanks to secure finances and a multi-national roster playing at top-modern facilities. Now Donbass are making attempts to emulate the football club's success on ice and it is a project that excites Khrystych.
"The launch of Donbass has started a totally new chapter of the history of Ukrainian hockey," he said. "They have built up the organisation step-by-step and they have many more plans to move forward."
Donbass who recently finished their inaugural season as Ukraine's sole representative in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League, KHL, are well underway with their masterplan for building a stronghold for hockey in the mining centre of Ukraine for years to come.
A junior team under the guidance of head coach Olexander Godynyuk will play in KHL's junior leauge, the MHL, as of next season. Add to that the creation of a brand new Donbass farm team, Belyi Bars who will play their games in central Ukraine and compete in national competitions.
But with currently only two Ukranian players, Sergi Varlamov and Olexander Materukhin, getting a regular shift for Donbass in the KHL, Kolesnikov's project is one that needs time to mature before its long-term benefits for Ukrainian hockey can properly be assessed, but with 460 kids born between 2001-06 enrolled in the newly formed Donbass Academy, ambitious work is well underway that one day more players would hail from Donetsk, a city that still heavily lags behind Kyiv and to a lesser extend Kharkiv when producing quality hockey players.
Meanwhile the General Secretary of the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine, Sergi Koval explains that increased attempts has also been put to place of late to try and even further spread the game across the country:
"Thanks to a new governmental program there is a new strategy being put into place for a new generation of hockey players," he said. "During the last four years we've built twelve new arenas, and we are hoping for a minimum of 35 to have built until 2017.
"As for kids taking up ice hockey, we have had a recent increase from 300-500 kids taking up hockey to last year's figure when 1,000 started playing the game," said Koval.
Khrystych, in his third separate spell as assistant coach, he has so far seen Ukraine race to two consecutive 8-1 wins in their Division I Group B campaign. He expects the biggest challenge to come from a robust Polish team on the final day of a tournament, where he also will be able to rekindle an old friendship with his former teammate from the gold-winning Soviet Union team from 1990 as Vyacheslav Bykov is working as a consultant for Poland since this season.
"When we played in the Olympic qualifiers in Denmark in February the game was so much faster and there our team was found out," he said about the current Ukraine team. "But we have since then played well in the warm-up games against Vityaz Chekhov ahead of this tournament, so if we can continue like we did against KHL opposition then we stand a good chance in this World Championship," said Khrystych about Ukraine's prospects to bounce back to the Division I Group A at the first attempt.