KYIV – The Ukrainian national team at the Olympic Pre-Qualification might be the strongest one in the last few years with NHL forwards Ruslan Fedotenko and Olexi Ponikarovsky being part of it for the first time since the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
Both players came back to Ukraine due to the labour conflict in the NHL. The timing was good for the club team they signed with, Donbass Donetsk, which joined the Russian KHL this year.
“It’s a perfect timing for a team from Ukraine to join the KHL, so it was kind of a no-brainer for me to go there,” Fedotenko said. “It’s kind of home, at least the home country.”
“I like it. It’s a new experience. I never played in the KHL. When I left Kyiv at a young age I never played through the Russian league or anything like that.”
Fedotenko played one year in the Ukrainian top league as a 16-year-old before a one-year stint in Turku, Finland, and then working his way up in North America.
In 2000 he had his NHL premiere with the Philadelphia Flyers after three years in minor leagues and junior teams. Later he scored the Stanley Cup clinching goal for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and hoisted the Cup again in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The last two years he was playing for the New York Rangers before signing a one-year contract to return to Philadelphia.
But now he’s back somewhere else. In Kyiv and his home arena, the Palace of Sports.
“It’s a special time for me. I played here a really long time ago,” the 33-year-old said. “It’s a treat for me to play here and to say ‘thank you’. If you have the chance to play it’s a special thing to play for your country.”
Ponikarovsky was born in Kyiv one year after Fedotenko. Also for him it’s a bit like going through a time machine when he takes to the ice the Palace of Sports, which was refurbished some years ago, but partly kept its old charm.
“It’s almost a little awkward. If you had asked me three months ago that I would play here where we play now I would have thought it’s crazy, but the current circumstances dictate a different scenario for us right now,” the 32-year-old said. “Now I’m here. I’m happy to be here. I have my family here and friends who come and watch the games, so that’s pretty good.”
Ponikarovsky left his hometown when he was 15 to join Dynamo Moscow. He played for the junior teams and had two seasons split between the top and second-tier Russian league before joining the Toronto Maple Leafs organization in 2000.
The last two seasons he has played for the Carolina Hurricanes and the New Jersey Devils.
“We had a good season with the New Jersey Devils and we had a good playoff run, but unfortunately we didn’t win the Stanley Cup,” he said. “I was happy with the season, although it didn’t finish on a good note.”
With the many changes in his career he originally located to Miami with his family, waiting for the lockout to be over, then moved to Winnipeg where he signed a one-year deal. But for now he calls Donetsk his other, other home.
“I’m kind of all over the places to see what happens,” he said and is happy with the solution he found for the meantime.
“It’s pretty good. I was surprised with the atmosphere because it’s mostly a soccer town, but now it’s becoming a hockey town as well,” Ponikarovsky said about Donetsk. “It’s their first year in the league and they’re trying to make everything possible for the players. It’s a pretty good organization and when they reached out for me and asked if I wanted to play for them I said I loved to be there.”
Also the city that used to me known mostly as a mining town was a pleasant surprise for him.
“I had never been there before, but when I came I was impressed with everything they did there for the Euro 2012 [European football championship],” he said. “They renovated everything, built new parks and streets. It looked pretty good and I’m happy where I am right now. We have ups and downs, but we try to build more chemistry.”
Playing in the Olympic Qualification is special for him since the only time he donned the blue-and-yellow jersey was in Salt Lake City. But since then the national team dropped down a few spots and is currently in 20th place in the IIHF World Ranking.
“I played at the Olympics in 2002. It was pretty good and I liked it,” he said. “We often can’t join the team because we’re usually in the playoffs, so it’s good for Ukraine that we have the chance to help the team.”
Building a new team is another challenge. Donbass Donetsk is currently 11th in the 14-team KHL Western Conference, four points behind a playoff spot.
But in Kyiv at the Olympic Pre-Qualification it has gone easier for the team so far. The Ukrainians were virtually unchallenged defeating underdogs Spain 7-0 and Estonia 10-0.
Fedotenko and Ponikarovsky are among the six players on the team who scored two goals apiece in the two games.
For Fedotenko it is normal to play for the team and he doesn’t feel a star status.
Asked whether he feels like a hero here, he said: “I don’t know. This you would have to ask the other guys. I’m just playing with partly the same guys I have played when I was a kid. For me it’s simply joining the team and playing with my friends.”
On Sunday evening the Ukrainians will have their last and biggest game of the tournament against Poland. Both are the top seeds in this tournament and also in the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B. After being relegated to that level, Ukraine will host the event in Donetsk next April.
“I don’t know them,” Fedotenko said about the Polish opponent. “I know they have a much better team [than Estonia and Spain] so we’re looking forward to it. But it’s going to be tough.”
Like the Ukrainians also the Poles have faced little challenge and have yet to concede a goal. It will be an interesting game for the teams and the fans tonight.