DONETSK – Once upon a time hockey was flourishing in Ukraine. The country’s most famous club, Sokil Kyiv, even managed to win bronze in the Soviet league behind the perennial favourites from Moscow, CSKA and Dynamo.
The result was that Ukraine joined the Top Division after the break-up of the Soviet Union and managed to stay there with mostly Soviet-developed players for nine consecutive years, coached by Anatoli Bogdanov and Olexander Seukand and captained by former world champion Valeri Shiryayev and Sergi Klimentyev.
Four times Ukraine also played in the Top Division of the U20 World Championship (last time in 2004) and four times in the U18 World Championship.
Since then the trend has gone downwards in Ukraine. There was little investment in the sport, and traditional clubs folded or lost importance. The renovated Palace of Sports where Sokil Kyiv used to play its home games before thousands of fans is seldom used for ice hockey anymore. The Olympic Preliminary Qualification in November was the exception rather than the rule.
The Ukrainian national team is ranked at an all-time low, 20th place in the World Ranking following the relegation to the Division I Group B. The junior teams haven’t done much better either in the recent years.
But there’s hope that the downward spiral has come to an end thanks to what is being hailed as new era for the sport in the country. New rinks have been built, a new club team in a new city plays in the KHL at the same level that Sokil Kyiv used to play two decades ago, and marketing initiatives have been launched to reignite ice hockey’s popularity.
The ultimate goals are to be competitive in the KHL, to develop more world-class players and have the national team return among the top-16 nations for the first time since 2007, and eventually get ready on and off the ice to host the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Ukraine after earlier bids have failed to get enough votes.
The hope is symbolized by Donbass Donetsk, a club founded in a city better known for coal mines and football, located in the east of the country.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Borys Kolesnikov has been the driving force behind the project. The politician and businessman fell in love in hockey when he watched the 1972 Summit Series as a kid and now uses his passion to develop hockey in his native region, beginning with the purchase of the club in 2010.
With Kolesnikov’s backing it went very quick for the club. Donbass Donetsk won the national championship in 2011 and 2012, and thus earning the right to participate in the Continental Cup last season and this season, when it will host the Super Final. It was the first team in Ukrainian hockey history from outside of Kyiv to win the Ukrainian title.
Donbass joined the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League in 2012 to bring Ukrainian club hockey to a higher level and a new, huge state-of-the-art arena is planned for the club, one that will be the centerpiece for an eventual World Championship bid by Ukraine.
While one may think that bringing hockey to a town where attending games usually meant watching a match of the city’s successful football club Shakhtar Donetsk may not be easy, Kolesnikov and his crew are doing all they can to prove the doubters wrong.
The average attendance at the Druzhba Sports Palace is 3,720, which is almost the capacity crowd in the current venue. But to show Donbass and hockey to a much larger crowd, Kolesnikov founded his own TV channel dedicated only to hockey – Telekanal Hockey, or Hockey TV in English.
“We started in January 2012,” Telekanal Hockey’s editor-in-chief, Olexander Mashenko, said. The hockey broadcaster with around 60 employees will celebrate its first anniversary later this month.
When Donbass Donetsk’s leadership evaluated where its games can be shown on TV, they noted that there are not that many opportunities.
“There was a channel Megasport where I worked,” Mashenko said. But this same channel ceased to exist as a sports channel after five years of operation in 2010.
Having a 24-7 hockey channel is one thing, having it in a country people wouldn’t expect it, is another.
“The idea for the channel came from the Donbass Donetsk owner,” Mashenko said. “The goal is to make ice hockey more popular. There were no means to show ice hockey on TV before. In the past, fans were only able to see the national team in the IIHF World Championship Division I, but there was no sport channel in Ukraine where we would have had the possibility to show more hockey.”
Consequently, “Hockey comes back to Ukraine” is the slogan for the TV channel.
Telekanal Sport produces the home games in the KHL of Donbass Donetsk, but it also shows other KHL games and matches from the Ukrainian league.
“The channel also has a five-year contract with the National Hockey League,” Mashenko said.
Mashenko looks forward to bring NHL hockey back to Ukrainian TV screens following the end of the labour conflict in North America and hopes more fans will be attracted with NHL hockey coming back.
Telekanal Hockey shows up to three KHL games daily. In the best case, a Ukrainian hockey fan’s schedule can look like this:
Live coverage can start with a game from Khabarovsk in the Far East before noon, followed by another game in the KHL Eastern Conference from less distant cities like Novosibirsk or Ufa in the afternoon, and a game from the Western Conference in the evening. Games from Ukraine’s new professional league PHL are broadcast live.
With the NHL season due to begin in January, the schedule can be extended with one or two games in the late night and early morning.
In between, the channel shows magazines, interviews and highlights from the Swedish Elitserien and the Czech Extraliga.
The channel is also very active in international hockey. It showed Ukraine’s Division I participation in Ljubljana last year as well as most games from the Top Division in Helsinki and Stockholm.
“I think there are not that many channels that showed that many games from the World Championship,” he proudly added.
In November it aired the Olympic Preliminary Qualification in Kyiv, where the channel has its headquarters. Thanks to wins over Estonia, Spain and Poland, the Ukrainians made the next round.
Next up is the Continental Cup followed by the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B that will also be played in Donetsk in April, and games from the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Stockholm and Sweden.
“The number of people watching games is growing constantly,” Mashenko said.
People can watch the games in cable networks and via satellite or digital television. For some games there’s even online broadcasting.
“Our channel is available in most of the bigger cities in Ukraine,” he said.
Is Telekanal Hockey the solution for a better future of the sport in Ukraine? Surely a TV channel alone cannot change the landscape. The country needs rinks, clubs and coaches to bring kids to the sport.
But with hockey around the clock on TV, the owners created an accompanying measure in their goal to increase the popularity of hockey both among sport fans and among a potential new generation of hockey players.
“I’m sure hockey will come back,” Mashenko said. “The biggest problem is venues. We don’t have enough venues, neither for youth hockey nor for professional hockey. But there’s a program for constructing venues. It maybe doesn’t work out that quickly, but the number of arenas has grown by four or five rinks annually.
“I think we will have a big growth in hockey.”
Big growth for big hockey. That’s also the internet address where fans will be able to watch a live stream and highlights from all six games of the upcoming IIHF Continental Cup Super Final in Donetsk: www.bighockey.ua