Back home, the team’s family and friends are facing the Russian invasion of Ukraine – and in the face of a humanitarian crisis in central Europe, the hockey community is stepping up to do what it can.
Incredibly, given the circumstances, the boys from Kharkiv won all six of their games in Debrecen, justifying their status as representatives of a specialist ‘Olympic reserve’ sports school (SDYUSSHOR is an acronym for a Specialist Elite-level sports school, often seen in the former Soviet Union). But the off-ice effort – in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and beyond – has been even more impressive as the team finds itself a guest of NKS Niedzwiadki Sanok.
For the parents of the young players, many of whom are still trapped in Kharkiv after Russian forces entered the city, it’s a huge relief to know that their children are safe and cared for.
“Despite these difficult times, we are happy that life goes on for our children,” read a statement on the team’s Facebook page. “We are happy that they can still play hockey, live a normal live and sleep soundly, far from terrifying explosions.
“Right now, we are far from one another, but as parents our hearts are at peace because we know our children are surrounded by the incredible support and care of the great hockey family.”
Immediate responseLevente Sipos, General Secretary of the Hungarian Ice Hockey Federation, takes up the story.
“The team from Kharkiv was just leaving home to come to the tournament in Debrecen,” he told IIHF.com. “While they were travelling, they got the news about the situation back home, the invasion.
“Immediately after they arrived, they were approached by a Polish team who offered them accommodation after the tournament. That was the first contact, and the Ukrainians immediately accepted the offer.”
The initial problem was providing the team – which had travelled with just a few days’ supplies – with everything it might need for an indefinite stay far from home. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that Ukrainian bank cards were not working in Hungary at the time, leaving the visitors with little more than they stood up in.
“Everyone rallied round immediately,” Sipos added. “The parents in Debrecen were really helpful, making sandwiches and snacks for everyone.”
Debreceni Hockey Club president Martha Plasztan-Brehoszki said that parents of players at her club were quick to provide money, clothes and more at a moment’s notice.
“The Hungarian Hockey Federation immediately offered all possible help,” she added. “They raised funds, put together 20 bags for the kids and even got an Xbox.” Other local groups contributed to ensure the bus was fully stocked for the 350-kilometre journey to Sanok.
The need for hockeyThat was only the start. As more and more Ukrainians fled the country, Hungary’s hockey community leapt into action. While hockey kit might not seem like the most pressing need for people fleeing a war zone, the hockey family is quick to recognise that getting back to the ice can bring a precious moment of relative normality amid the maelstrom of crisis.
With help from contacts at the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine, Sipos and his colleagues are working to make contact with hockey players from their Eastern neighbour. In Debrecen, the hockey team worked with other sports clubs in the city to house a party of 36 young athletes and their families who arrived in Hungary early last week. In the border city of Satoraljaujhely, close to the point where Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine meet, the hockey federations of Hungary and Ukraine were able to organise a day out at the local ice cube and adventure park for families fleeing the conflict back home.
“We have many Ukrainians coming into Hungary right now and many Hungarians are volunteering to host them,” Sipos said. “We are trying to make contact with hockey players and help them to come to cities where there is ice, where there is a hockey community. We’re trying to help the players and their families.
“While they are in Hungary, maybe they will still be able to play some hockey and get a little bit of normality. I think giving people a chance to get back on the ice could be one of the most important things for people’s mental health.”
However, in the chaotic circumstances caused by the invasion, planning is far from straightforward.
“The situation is evolving so it’s very hard to plan anything,” Sipos added. “It’s war, so what you plan one day can be completely different the next day. We know that sometimes volunteers will be ready to receive people and then only half of the people we were expecting can actually arrive. That’s not a problem, we understand. Everyone is working together, and we can do more when it’s needed.”
Initially, the plan was to work with hockey clubs in cities close to the Ukrainian border. However, it quickly became clear that the hockey community throughout Hungary wanted to play its part. Many clubs and rinks have set up regional hubs to provide support to refugees from Ukraine, and are eager to do what they can to help fellow hockey lovers.
“It’s not a problem to get to the border and collect people from the camps,” Sipos said. “At the moment, we have more people offering, we can still take more people. The whole idea is that this is the hockey community helping each other. When you are in the hockey family, this is what it means. People know they are helping someone like them, one of our own.”
Further supportTwo other Ukrainian teams, Kryzhynka Kyiv and Halytski Levy Novoyavorivsk were due to travel to Debrecen for tournament. They turned back as news of the Russian invasion broke. A few days later, though, Halytske Levy also made it to Poland. They arrived in Krynica-Zdroj, as guests of another SCJL team, HKS KTH.
The CJHL is also actively working to place young Ukrainian hockey players with families, particularly in Slovakia. Some individuals have already found a safe haven in Michalovce or Bratislava and the league’s Facebook page says there are potential hosts for more if needed.
With help from the league, the youngsters from Kharkiv have been able to play exhibition games in Slovakia, travelling to Michalovce this week.
The Swiss Ice Hockey Federation got in touch with the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine and bussed 50 persons – youth hockey players and their mothers and siblings – to Switzerland where they stay in Kreuzlingen. “They have an entire house for their own. The kids and teenagers can continue to go to school and the players can continue practising,” said Andre Salamin of Talent-Campus Bodensee where the group stays.