“This is my third Continental Cup,” said American defenceman Clay Wilson, who played for the Donbass team that won in 2013 and finished second in 2014. “It’s something we take very seriously and at the same time it’s a lot of fun. It’s a good opportunity to play against teams from other leagues and see where we stand.”
Donbass also made the final round and finished third in 2012. Other current Donbass players who played in at least one of those tournaments are Alexander Vasiliev and Alexander Materukhin, who both played in 2012 and 2013.
Back in those days, Donbass played in the KHL and its roster included Ruslan Fedotenko, Sergei Varlamov, Vaclav Nedorost, Randy Robitaille and goaltender Michael Leighton.
However, after not icing a team during the 2014/15 season due to the war in Donbass, the team returned to action in the Ukrainian Hockey League the following year. With its traditional home in Donetsk inaccessible, Donbass has played the past five seasons 80 kilometres to the north in Druzhkivka in Ukrainian-controlled territory of the Donbass region.
“It’s a lot different but it’s the same organization,” said Wilson. “They’re good people and they treat us well.”
After an absence of several years, Wilson, Materukhin, and Vasiliev returned to Donbass this season but as part-time players. Wilson, now 36, is the team’s player with NHL experience.
“We have a rule in the UHL where you can only dress three guys over a certain age, so we rotate five or six guys in and out of the lineup,” said Wilson. “We have a lot of good leaders here – some older guys who really step up.”
On playing on a team full of youngsters, Wilson says: You know, it’s always fun working with younger guys who want to learn and get better, and I think they look at us to show them how to do it.”
Prior to joining Donbass in 2012, Wilson played four years for the Michigan Tech Huskies and another seven years of professional hockey in North America. Most of that time was spent in the AHL but he also had NHL stints with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Atlanta Thrashers, Florida Panthers and Calgary Flames. He also played for the United States at the 2011 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia.
After leaving Donbass in 2014, he played for two more KHL teams and AIK Stockholm of the second-tier Allsvenskan before deciding to retire in 2018.
“My last season I played in Sweden in the second division and after the season I talked to my wife and we thought it was time to be done with playing,” said Wilson. “But after a year of missing hockey, I got a call from Donbass and my wife is Ukrainian, so it was a good opportunity for us to come back to Ukraine and be a part of Donbass again.”
Being a dominant team in Ukraine, Donbass is a regular participant in the Continental Cup, but hasn’t made it back to the final round since 2014. However, after winning its second-round group in Brovary, Ukraine last month, Donbass made it back to the third round for the first time in three years.
Now, whereas Donbass was a Continental Cup favourite on Wilson’s first go-around with the team, it is now somewhat of an underdog.
“Yeah definitely,” Wilson agreed. “You know, people see a team from Ukraine where the league’s very small and maybe they don’t expect much from us, but I think we make Ukraine proud and show that we can play with competition from outside our league.”
After losing its first Group F game 4-3 in overtime to Belarusian club Neman Grodno on Friday and then beating Kazakh entry Beibarys Atyrau 5-3 on Saturday, Donbass sits in second place in the group with four points. Grodno leads with five and host Cracovia Krakow is third with three. All three teams could still finish anywhere between first and third, and only the top two advance.
“No matter what, we know that tomorrow’s like a championship game for us,” Wilson said after the win over Beibarys. “We’re gonna be ready to come and play hard.”
It’s not going to be easy, though, in an expected hostile environment at Adam “Roch” Kowalski Arena against host Cracovia in the last game of Group F.
“It should be interesting,” he said. “It’s always tough when you come into someone else’s building. You’ve gotta show your stuff, but we’ve got a lot of fans too and they make a lot of noise, so we’re glad to have that support.”
Wilson figures the team’s been getting better since the start of the tournament.
“I think we’re finding our legs a little bit after travelling here,” he said. “We had a bit of a break before for (national team) tournaments, so some of us hadn’t played in a while, but every game we’re playing a little better and hopefully tomorrow we can put together our best game.”