Team captain Nikolai Kiselyov got the all-important goal, snapping a 2-2 tie to convert a power play. It was the first time Kremenchuk led on the night and, more remarkably, concluded the first home victory in the final series. The forward found space at the back door to steer a Yegor Seranov shot into the net and get the party started. After finishing runner-up three times, Kremenchuk had the big prize at last.
“We came here to change the script,” Kiselyov said after his winning goal. “And, thanks to our fans, our families and everyone who supported us, we did it!”
Over a 13-month campaign, though, the team showed admirable consistency and retained form and focus even when the play-offs were forced to pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The playoffs originally started on 1 September after a break of over five months but after three days the season had to be interrupted again due to COVID-19 cases at several teams. 25 days later the semi-finals continued with HK Kremenchuk advancing against Bily Bars Bila Tserkva while Donbass beat Dnipro Kherson to set up the showdown between the best two teams of the country.
“I think that says a lot about our coaching staff,” said goalie Vladislav Novitski, who had two shutouts during the final series. “Every team has its ups and downs, and we are no exception. But in the end, we got it done.”
This series was a match-up between two teams with rather different histories. Donbass, which played two seasons in the KHL before its arena in Donetsk was damaged during the conflict in 2014, is very much the marquee club of Ukrainian hockey in recent years having won seven championships between 2011 and 2019. During the regular season, it called upon several players with extensive experience in the more prominent league across the border. Defending a four-year streak as national champion, it has set the highest standards under head coach Sergi Viter. “Donbass has a winning tradition, so it’s a matter of prestige for us to win the cup,” said 22-year-old forward Andri Grygoryev before the title showdown.
However, for the city of Kremenchuk, in the Poltava region of central Ukraine, hockey success has been a long time in coming. The game first came to town in 1945 thanks to the pioneering hockey players at the local auto plant. From the 1950s, local championships were contested in the open air, on natural ice at rinks in the factory grounds. It wasn’t until 2012 that the city opened the Iceberg arena, a 1,000-seater indoor rink.
By then HK Kremenchuk already had a couple of Ukrainian amateur titles following its establishment in 2010 and the club moved into the new venue and went professional. A season in the Belarusian second tier was followed by a switch the Ukrainian championship. Three times, the club reached the grand final only to miss out on gold – until this year.
And head coach Olexander Savytski, whose playing career included Russian Superliga gold with Ak Bars Kazan in 1998, wants the class of 2020 inspire a new generation of hockey talent in town. “I hope this will be a big boost for sport in general and especially hockey in our city,” he said. “Let’s hope that more kids start coming to play hockey, that their parents start to bring them after seeing us win [the championship].”
There won’t be much time for Kremenchuk to celebrate, though, with the 2020/21 season due to start next week. Head coach Savytski is relying on his team to be ready from the start. “I hope we’ll spend a couple of days celebrating then get back to serious business,” he added. “Winning the championship once is good, but doing it again is the big thing. That’s why we can’t afford to rest on our laurels, we need to keep playing with the same spirit.”
Kremenchuk will face two new opponents in the coming season. The Ukrainian championship features eight teams in 2020/21, up from six. The newcomers are Sokil Kyiv, a famous name returning to Ukrainian hockey, and HK Mariupol, a newly formed club on the shores of the Sea of Azov. The latter will play in a purpose-built arena which opened its doors this month.