Head coach Vadym Shakhraychuk and his players are targeting gold even as their homeland fights against the Russian invasion that began on Feb. 24. An extended training camp in Miskolc, Hungary, has helped to bring the team together after the domestic season came to an abrupt, enforced halt. And warm-up games brought convincing victories over Croatia and two narrow losses to a Hungarian team with ambitions of winning promotion to the top division.
Forward Vitali Lyalka is absolutely clear that there can be no excuses when Ukraine begins its campaign against Serbia on Wednesday. “I want to win, to get promotion to Division IA,” he told the sports.ua website. “We know it won’t be easy, but if we have made the decision to play during the war then we have no right to go onto the ice without motivation or in poor physical condition.
“In Tychy, we need to give it 100 per cent, and even more.”
The biggest rival for Ukraine is likely to be the host nation. There’s a long-standing cross-border rivalry with Poland, and their most recent competitive encounter ended in a 6-1 loss in Olympic Qualification in Kazakhstan back in February 2020.
“They have a very strong team and a strong national championship, we have to take them seriously,” cautioned Lyalka. “Games against this opponent are usually very tight, with just a couple of goals in it.”
However, the nature of the rivalry has changed in recent weeks, the HC Presov forward feels. “This time, it will be a purely sporting confrontation. Thanks to the warm attitude that the Poles have shown to Ukrainians during the current war, some of the rivalry that might have been felt before is no longer there.”
Biggest win in a decadeUkraine’s warm-up games offered plenty of grounds for optimism. Unofficial encounters with club teams from Slovakia brought comfortable victories, and there was more satisfaction from two clashes with Hungary. The first ended in a 1-3 loss, but during the game Ukraine outshot its higher-ranked host and was encouraged by the quality of its play. Then, in the final warm-up game on 22 April, Ukraine was nine seconds away from victory in Budapest thanks to goals from Feliks Morozov and Lyalka. However, the Magyars spoiled the party with a late equalizer and went on to win the shootout.
In between there were wins over Croatia, including an 11-0 success that represents Ukraine’s biggest victory since 2010.
Goalie Bogdan Dyachenko is encouraged by what he’s seen so far. “We have a chance of winning in Poland,” the 23-year-old from Kharkiv said. “The main is to act as a single unit, to strike with one fist, then we achieve anything and win this tournament.
“Moreover, now we all have an additional incentive – we must win this war on ice.”
‘An honour and a duty’Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the country’s hockey federation not only had to make a decision about whether to compete in this year’s tournament, but also to persuade its players and coaching staff that this was an appropriate way to serve their nation.
“With the senior national team, we needed to convince every player that it is an honour and a civic duty to be part of the national team,” said Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine CEO Olexandra Slatvytska. “Our head coach, Vadym Shakhraychuk, did a huge amount of work on this. First, he needed to decide for himself whether he should lead the team during the war.
“He’s strongly patriotic and he wanted to stay in Kyiv after his family left, but he understands the best way he can help Ukraine at this time is to prepare the team. This is his profession, it is what he knows how to do – and in a war, it’s very important that every person uses their skills as best they can.
“Vadym was in negotiations with every player on the team before they came to Hungary.”
Team captain Andri Mikhnov admitted that it wasn’t an easy decision to leave Ukraine and join the camp in Miskolc, Hungary. “Due to the war, I didn’t want to leave the country at all,” he told the FHU website when he joined the national team last month. “I had already come to terms with the fact that the hockey season was over.
“But when coach Shakhraychuk called, he said that it was important for the state that we play at the World Championship and defend the honour of Ukraine on the ice. Even so, I left Kyiv with a heavy heart.”
And Slatvytska, who is also serving as GM for the national team in Tychy, hopes that having the team together for an unusually long pre-tournament camp might translate into good results when the competition starts.
“I am telling [the team] right now that there are no excuses not to be well prepared,” she said. “Everything is in place to have a successful World Championship, and there is a huge motivation for them as well.
“I believe that every player, every member of the staff, really understands why this is so important and why it matters to each individual. We started with a roster of 27, with 23 places at the World Championship, and the coaches have been saying that everyone is very competitive because they all want to stay on the roster and go to the championship.”
Ukraine starts its tournament in Tychy today against Serbia. Then comes the showdown with Poland on 28 April. After a rest day, the schedule concludes with games against Japan (30 April) and Estonia (1 May). Lithuania, originally due to play in this tournament as top-seeded team, was moved to Division IA as part of the reorganisation of the World Championship groups following the suspension of Russia and Belarus.