Donbass responded, reeling off four wins on the spin and securing the title with a 4-1 success on home ice. In the end, the defending champion had too much and secured it’s seventh national championship, but head coach Sergi Viter insisted that this season was one of the toughest his team had faced.
“We took a really tough path,” he told the club’s official website. “Of course it feels good now we’ve won. We lost that first game but the guys got it together and won four in a row. Our guys were awesome.
“As for the championship as a whole, to be honest we did not start playing hard until November. Then we started working, we put a huge amount into it. That’s how we managed to overcome our opponents in the regular season and take first place – which we really needed – and then get through the play-offs.
“It was tough. We had a bit of a slump because of the way the season was split but the guys pulled it together and their character and dedication took us to the championship.”
A tough season also brought out the best in the club’s fans, with the 1,162 who attended the decisive game of the play-offs setting a new record of the recent years. Home forward Vitali Lyalka said: “For me that kind of support is really important, it’s impossible to play without our fans. For us, they’re like a sixth skater. To have 1,162 people here is just super. We’re trying to improve our game for the future and they are trying to improve attendances. Together, we’re record breakers!”
That crowd included a significant contingent from Kherson, where hockey fever has hit the Black Sea port following the re-establishment of an adult team in the city for the first time since 2010. Dnipro was formed over the summer with a view to enabling local youngsters – successful in Ukrainian junior championships – to continue their careers without moving away from home.
Ambitions were high from the start. Vladislav Manger, head of the Kherson local government, announced the appointment of the head coach as a statement of intent: “We’re not interested in setting the bar low,” he said in an interview before the start of the season. “We’ve hired Dmitri Pidgurski as coach and, as you know, when he was at Kremenchuk his teams were battling with Donbass for top spot. So we have the same high expectations here.”
Pidgurski and his team, a mix of experienced Ukrainian Hockey League campaigners and promising youngsters from Kherson’s hockey schools, lived up to expectations. In the regular season Dnipro came third, winning 30 of its 40 games and collecting 89 points. In the play-offs, the team eased through a quarter-final against Kyiv’s Krizhani Vovki, winning 5-0 and 7-1. The semi-final then brought a match-up with Kremenchuk, Pidgurski’s former club and last season’s beaten finalist. Dnipro battled through in seven games to set up a showdown against Donbass – battling for top spot just as Manger expected at the start of the season.
The club also saw goalie Oleg Petrov, once on the books of Sibir and Traktor in the KHL, deliver 11 shutouts – a new Ukrainian League record – to consolidate a hugely successful start to life for Ukraine’s newest team.
That success did not go unnoticed elsewhere. Donbass president Borys Kolesnykov paid tribute to his team’s opponent in the final – and urged other local authorities to follow Kherson’s lead. “The local government helped set up a team in Kherson and success followed immediately,” he said in a statement on the HC Donbass website. “This is an example to other cities like Kyiv, Dnipr or Odessa – all these cities are more than capable of creating their own strong hockey clubs. In our championship we now have three teams at a high level, better even than the football championship where there is only Shakhtar and Dinamo.”