Hockey returns to Ukraine
by Andy Potts|08 OCT 2022
Kremenchuk and Sokil Kyiv during their season opener.
photo: FHU
In the words of Sokil Kyiv forward Sergi Babinets: “Hockey is my family. I’m home again.”

Babinets was speaking after the opening games in Ukraine’s new hockey season. The 35-year-old forward had not played since injury halted his season with HK Mariupol last autumn. At the time, he announced his retirement and planned to move into coaching.

In February, everything changed. The invasion of Ukraine halted sport across the country. The Mariupol arena where Babinets, 35, played a few weeks earlier was destroyed amid fierce fighting around the Azov Sea city. It was hard to imagine the country staging any kind of hockey season in 2022/23.

The Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine (FHU) did not give up. Showing the same determination that enabled its national teams to skate in World Championship play in the spring, the sporting authorities set up a championship for this season. And Babinets, fit again, could not resist lacing them up once more and attempting to overtake the league’s record scorer Nikita Butsenko. Currently he needs five goals to become the all-time leading goal scorer in the league, and 16 points to top the scoring chart.

In his opening game on 6 October, though, Babinets was unable to close on that target. His team lost 3-0 to Kremenchuk, the runner-up to Sokil last season and participant in the IIHF Continental Cup later this autumn.

A goal and an assist from Vitali Lyalka helped the visitor to a 3-0 win. Lyalka, who wore the ‘A’ as Ukraine played in the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B last spring, returned to his homeland after playing in Slovakia last term. Asked about his decision, when many of his team-mates on the national team were travelling in the opposite direction, Lyalka spoke of the importance of sharing his experience with the junior players emerging this season.

Double header

The Sokil vs Kremenchuk clash was the second game of the opening. Earlier on Thursday, newly formed HK Kyiv took on the rebranded Kharkiv Berserks . A power play goal in overtime from Yevhen Abadjan gave the visitor a 2-1 verdict.

However, even on a day dedicated to the return of peaceful past-times, reminders of the war were never far away.

The opening game was interrupted by an air-raid siren midway through the third period. With 9:12 on the clock and the score locked at 1-1, the game had to be halted as the players and officials went to the shelter. The delay lasted 36 minutes before the danger passed and the teams could return. 

The return of Ukraine’s hockey league is not just a big deal for the country’s hockey community. Many see it as symbolic of day-to-day life in Ukraine and a welcome diversion from the on-going conflict.

Vitali Samoilenko, a Sokil fan now fighting with a special forces squadron  that participated in the defence of Kyiv earlier this year, summed up the thoughts of many. He was invited to perform the ceremonial puck drop ahead of the game between Sokil and Kremenchuk, and later said:

“People should be able to live normal lives. If we focus entirely on the war, if we cancel all sports and entertainment, the country will plunge into deep trauma. Of course, however, we cannot forget the cost of a peaceful life. We must always remember those who are there, on the front lines, and those who were taken captive, especially the guys who heroically faced the enemy at Azovstal.”

The season ahead

The 2022/23 edition includes four teams who contested last season’s championship until the start of the Russian invasion on 24 February: Sokil Kyiv, Kremenchuk, Dnepr Kherson and Kharkiv Beserks. In addition, two newly-formed teams, HK Kyiv and Legion Kalush are competing for the first time. Four established Ukrainian teams, Donbass Donetsk, HK Mariupol, HK Kramatorsk and Bilyy Bars Bila Tserkva  are unable to enter in parts due to their location in or near the occupied areas.

Each team will play 30 regular season games, concluding 5 March. The play-offs will run from 12 to 31 March, with the semi-finals and final played as best-of-three series.

In international competition, Kremenchuk will represent Ukraine in this season’s Continental Cup as Sokil Kyiv was unable to participate.

Due to the military situation, games are to be played without spectators. Fans can follow the action on national TV, and the federation’s YouTube channel will bring it to a worldwide audience. Since some of the teams represent cities close to current combat zones in Kherson and Kharkiv regions, games will be played at three arenas in Kyiv, Kremenchuk and Kalush. 

Sokil and HK Kyiv will play home games in their native city, Kharkiv will join Kremenchuk at the Iceberg Arena while Dnipro Kherson is sharing with Legion Kalush in the western Ivano-Frankivsk region. Legion and Dnipro go head-to-head for their season opener in Kalush on Saturday. When Dnipro resumed training last month, the club noted that it was the first time in over 200 days its players had been able to get on the ice.

The Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine has also amended its rules on imports. Players from Russia and Belarus are banned, and teams are limited to no more than five foreigners. Last season 44 Russians and six Belarusians played in the league, making up almost 40% of the total player pool. The rosters for this season are entirely comprised of Ukrainian players.

Several players move abroad

Many top players are currently out of the country. Of the roster that represented Ukraine at World Championship Division IB in Tychy, Poland, last April, nine have moved from Ukrainian clubs to foreign teams. They include forward Alexander Peresunko, who admitted after the spring tournament that the uncertainty at home was pushing him to look for a team in Europe.

In the end, the 22-year-old Kharkiv native went to Hungary where he will play for UTE in the cross-border Erste Liga. Other destinations include Steaua Bucaresti for veteran forward Andrei Mikhnov, the Brooks Bandits of the AJHL for 19-year-old prospect Mikhail Simchuk and several players going to Poland. A recent game between Unia Oswiecim and Zaglebie Sosnowiec involved six Ukrainian players, three on each side.

Salvaging arenas

As well as keeping the national championship on the ice, the federation is working to preserve as much of the country’s ice infrastructure as possible. Several arenas have been affected by this year’s fighting, and FHU President Georgi Zubko is working to salvage what remains.

There are plans to physically move ice making equipment and structural materials from the arenas in Druzhivka and Kramatorsk. The Druzhivka rink, which became home to HC Donbass after its home arena in Donetsk was shelled back in 2014, is already on the move to Uzhgorod, near the Slovak border.

“We are working on the logistics, dismantling what we can,” Zubko told the Suspilne News website. “Now the task is to restore this arena in a new place so that children and adults can skate there.”

In Kramatorsk, things are uncertain. Zubko is eager for dialogue with the local authorities. “We have to save this arena, which cost more than $1 million,” he said. “It’s definitely in no state for children to skate now.

“We are already short of [rinks] in this country, so we want to discuss everything that can save this one.”

Zubko added that when peace returns, the arenas will be reinstated in their original locations or replaced with new ice venues.