In the weeks since the beginning of the conflict, hundreds of junior players, and their families, have found safe havens and opportunities to stay in the game across the continent.
Thanks to the outpouring of support from various ice hockey associations, clubs, leagues, and private individuals to house these and other players, Ukraine is on track to compete later this month in the 2022 IIHF senior and U18 Division I Group B World Championships as scheduled.
For Aleksandra Slatvytska, CEO of the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine, leaving her native Kyiv was a tough decision. Instinctively called to stay and defend her country, she was persuaded by her husband, and by FHU president Georgi Zubko, that it was more important for her to take her children to safety and work outside of Ukraine. While Zubko serves with the Territorial Defence Forces, an umbrella organisation of civilian volunteers formed in response to the invasion, she has been coordinating efforts nonstop to get the federation’s athletes to safety.
Slatvyska’s efforts found immediate support from ice hockey groups in Europe.
“Right from the first days of the war, we had offers of help from individual hockey clubs and national associations across Europe,” Slatvytska said. “Somebody would contact us to say that, for example, they could provide accommodation, food and ice time for 30 people.”
At press time, the senior men’s national team is currently in Hungary preparing for its Division IB World Championship campaign in Poland (26 April-1 May), while the U18s have a camp in Czechia ahead of their tournament in Asiago later this month (25 April-1 May), something that would have seemed impossible just weeks ago.
A temporary reprieve for the men’s national team, safety for the juniors
Ukraine’s teams having just the possibility to prepare for and compete in these events has been the result of a coordinated effort spearheaded by the IIHF and its members.
“We are faced with an exceptional situation, where one of our members through circumstances beyond their control are having to go to extraordinary lengths to compete in a World Championship,” said IIHF President Luc Tardif. “They are committed to playing and were backed by their country that wants to see the Ukraine team represented internationally, and for Ukraine sports and culture to continue where it is possible. Under these circumstances, we needed to do what we could to ensure they had a chance to compete.”
For these teams, representing their country at the Worlds during this time of crisis will just be the start of their national commitments – explained IIHF Council Member Viesturs Koziols, who is heading the IIHF coordination group responsible for supporting IIHF Member National Association (MNA) efforts to assist the Ukraine teams.
“The Ukraine men’s national team will have to go back to their country,” said Koziols. “They are not allowed to stay outside Ukraine after the World Championship. They have a sportive exemption to prepare for the World Championship and then they have to go back and defend their country.”
“It’s the same for the coaches and the staff with the U18s. The kids are minors, they will likely be able to stay in Europe but the coaching staff, the equipment manager, the doctors, all the adults will have to go back and participate in the war.”
With ice hockey in Ukraine shut down, the biggest hurdle the Ukraine Federation faced at the outbreak of the conflict was how to get players to locations where they could practise and play safely.
“As a federation, we used a special Telegram channel to let people know about this – kids, mums, coaches, directors of sports schools. When there was an opportunity to transfer a party to Switzerland, for example, we provided application forms. When we have the right number of people and the personal details – because it’s very important for us to know who is going, whether they are really a hockey player – our role as a federation is to organise transport for them inside Ukraine.”
“We have an arrangement with the railways to get people to Lviv where our volunteers can meet them and get them to the border. Where the railways can’t work, in Kharkiv, which was under terrible bombing, or in Kherson, which is now totally occupied, we ran buses. We get them to the border and arrange with the host country that they will be collected and taken to a place where they can stay.”
By the end of March, more than 750 players and relatives were relocated outside the country.
“It can be very hard to make a decision to leave if you need to take care of your children,” Slatvytska added. “You want some guarantees that someone can take care of you. Our federation is pretty popular, people in Ukraine trust us. They understand that they are not just going to be refugees, that our counterparts from France, or Czechia, or wherever, will give them support.”
The federation also worked to ensure that import players with Ukrainian clubs could leave the country safely – including several from Russia. Slatvystska also had to reconnect with young hockey players who left the country on their own, before the federation was able to set up its support services.
MNAs, CHL, NHL, NHLPA step up to support
So far, 13 IIHF Member National Associations (Canada, Czechia, France, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Switzerland, USA), have agreed to provide some form of financial and/or logistical support to rehouse the Ukraine players and allow them to train.
Read more about MNA's efforts to support Ukraine's players
Aside from coordinating the MNA support the IIHF also reached out to various leagues around Europe, receiving monetary pledges from the Champions Hockey League, for example.
IIHF President Luc Tardif also put in a call to the NHL and NHLPA, who have each agreed to provide significant support for the players. The NHLPA has agreed to donate equipment throughs its Goals & Dreams Program, while the NHL will help to cover team support costs to the Ukraine junior teams training abroad.
In addition to the work of the coordination group’s efforts to organize all the support for the teams, the IIHF is donating clothing from Nike as well as equipment from the equipment supplier program.
“To see this level of support come together in such a short time is incredible,” said Tardif, who himself initially housed and then arranged for apartments and school assistance for four members of the federation at his hometown in France. “I sincerely thank everyone for their unhesitating support.”
However, there was a bureaucratic process in play. Current rules mean that adult men are required to stay in Ukraine and join the efforts to repel the invasion. Deciding to play was not a straightforward decision for anyone involved.
“First, our federation had a hard decision,” Slatvytska said. “We had people in bomb shelters, discussing whether we should send a team to play hockey. We didn’t know if we would have opponents for warm-up games, we didn’t know if we would have support from the IIHF. Financing was a huge issue.”
That led to an unprecedented preparation camp for the team, because a longer break from play would leave Ukraine’s players unprepared for the upcoming tournament in Tychy, Poland.
“We had five days of crazy work with everything,” Slatvytska added. “It was also a huge task to get permission from the Ministry of Youth & Sports and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The U18s were mostly in Europe already, but the men’s team are grown men who are supposed to stay and defend our land. We had to work through the bureaucracy to get permission to leave and confirm our obligations to return to Ukraine after the championship. After the tournament, everyone should go back to Ukraine.”
For the U18s, things changed quickly. Planned accommodation in Asiago, Italy, fell through at the last minute, prompting a scramble to build an alternative plan. Marko Valencic, sporting director at HC Lev Slany and member of the IIHF Development Committee, was among those who helped to get the team to Brumov-Bylnice in south-eastern Czechia, not far from the Slovak border.
It took a day and a half of frantic effort to find a new venue and arrange funds to support the team’s stay. Fortunately, connections between Lev Slany and international courier company Easy Flyers helped smooth over the obstacles and came through with a big assist.
“Tomas Drastil, the chairman of Easy Flyers, told me a few weeks ago that his company is starting a foundation and already raised some money. He wanted to use that money to help with the kids, and maybe to do something with hockey.”
“I explained the situation to him, how people were talking a lot but not really doing stuff. Within a couple of hours we had the money we needed.”
“I’m happy I could help, but the main guys are the people who contributed money so the kids could be safe. Even if I organise everything, we couldn’t do anything without them and that money.”
Valencic saw Ukraine’s U18s play an exhibition game against a club team from Zlin, Czechia. The arena was full of other Ukrainian youngsters who had been forced to leave their homes and it proved to be an emotional experience.
“I was with the kids when they arrived, I spoke with them a couple of times now,” Marko recalled. “When they had a game a couple of days ago against Zlin, they had some Ukrainian kids from a couple of places close by who came to cheer for them. They won that game and I think it was a great feeling for all of them, there was the national anthem going on and everything like that.
"I was very, very nervous because I wanted to play my best game and be a good partner for my new teammates who welcomed me to the team," said Tomin.
“Talking to the kids and their families, I’ve heard at first-hand how playing hockey is extremely important to them,” he said. “We have to understand that this can take away some of the memories of the war. These are kids who were suddenly faced with air-raid sirens, with shells falling on their homes.”
“I was talking to an art teacher from one of their schools. She said that the kids are only using dark colours in their pictures. No blues and yellows and greens, only black and dark brown. That’s the impact the war has on their imaginations.”
“We have to help them, to comfort them, to try to divert them away from those memories and towards something positive – and hockey is a positive emotion for these kids.”