The 22-year-old was forced to flee from Mariupol with his family when the Ukrainian city was engulfed by war. An arduous and risky journey across Russia brought him to Finland, where his experience of working with his hometown hockey club helped him find a role at the Worlds. He told IIHF.com his story.
A city in ruinsAgainst the backdrop of widespread destruction, it’s easy to lose track of the implications for day-to-day life. Yet, in many respects, it’s precisely the wreckage of things like Mariupol’s fledgling hockey program that bring the tragedy of the war into sharper focus.
The city’s ice rink, now in ruins, opened in October 2020 and the hockey team was established at the same time. Zhdanov worked with the club from its inception, starting out as a manager for hockey and figure skating schools. That attracted about 300 people into ice sports – no mean feat in a sunny southern city with little tradition of winter sports.
Backing from the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Hockey League and its sponsors brought visits from hockey stars like Olexander Pobyedonostsev (a four-time Ukrainian champion and former captain on the national team) and Serhi Varlamov (a 2002 Olympian who had 63 NHL games with St. Louis and Calgary) and the current season saw Zhdanov take on a new role as commercial manager when the end of Covid-19 restrictions meant fans could come to the arena to see the team in person for the first time.
“In Mariupol, hockey was something new, but I think people quickly fell in love with it,” Zhdanov said. “We were building a good fanbase and even though it was an exhibition tournament, people in the city were excited when our team won the Azov Sea Cup and beat a famous club like Donbass.”
That progress came to an abrupt halt in February.
“On 23 February the team went to play a road game,” Zhdanov recalled. “We were planning to go to Kramatorsk the next day – it’s not far from Mariupol, maybe 250 kilometres – and we wanted to take our young supporters to the game. But that evening we decided it wasn’t safe to go, our government was discussing a new law cancelling public events.
“Even then, we couldn’t imagine what was coming the next day. My life was turned upside down for a second time – I was born in Donetsk and had to leave there in 2014, so it’s the second time I’ve had to leave home because of war. In the morning when my mother told me that the war had started, I was shocked. It felt like everything was happening again and I didn’t want to believe the news.”
A perilous journeyUnder Russian bombardment, Zhdanov and his family spent a couple of weeks sheltering in Mariupol. However, as the situation got more dangerous, it was clear that they had to leave. A planned escape to Zaporizhzhya, a major city to the West of Mariupol on the banks of the Dnieper, proved impossible when the humanitarian corridors were closed. The only option was a nerve-wrecking overland journey via Crimea into Russia and eventually through Moscow and St. Petersburg to the Finnish border.
“We knew we were taking a big risk, going through Russian territory,” Zhdanov said. “You can imagine how it was at the Finnish border, with FSB officers questioning us, checking our phones for photos, emails and posts.
“But we had no choice. We want to live, and after being forced from our homes for a second time, we had to get away.”
“It shows the rest of the world that Ukraine isn’t giving up, Ukraine will keep working, keep fighting,” he said. “We’ll continue to compete in hockey, in football – at the start of June our national team goes to Scotland for its World Cup qualifier – as far as I’m aware all our hockey players, footballers and other athletes are determined to go out and show the world that Ukraine lives, that Ukraine is still here and can still win on the international stage.”
To the World Championship – and beyondWorking in the Tampere media centre at the World Championship is a different kind of international stage. Zhdanov is part of the often unsung group of volunteers who ensure that reporters at the games are kept up to date with all the stats and get access to the key players in the mixed zone.
Applying for the role was a shot that paid off. “I have good experience of working with a hockey club, so I figured ‘why not try?’,” he said. “I sent in my details and a week before the championship Janina, our media service manager, called and said that she thought I’d be a good fit to work at the Worlds. I was so happy, it’s hard to put those emotions into words.”
Now Zhdanov and his family are settling into life in Tampere, grateful for the warm welcome Finland has offered to refugees from the conflict in Ukraine.
The next step is to look for work – ideally in hockey. “I’m willing to go and work anywhere in the world because I love this game,” he said. “I’ve been involved in the sport all my life so after the championship I’d like to find work in that area.”
Ultimately, though, in common with millions of refugees across Europe, he’d like to be able to go home.
“Right now it’s just not possible,” he said. “Mariupol is completely destroyed, Donetsk, where I was born, was shelled and is occupied by the Russians so there is nowhere for me to go.
“When things improve, when Donetsk and Mariupol are liberated, then I’ll be very happy to go home and we can start work on rebuilding our country.”