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Ukrainian hockey making comeback

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Oct. 4, 2012, 11:23 p.m. | Sports — by Denis Rafalsky

A forward for Donetsk’s Donbass team scores in this file 2011 photograph, helping his team beat Latvia’s Metallurgs 6-2 in the semifinals of the Continental Cup.
© UNIAN

Denis Rafalsky

Ice hockey is making a comeback in Ukraine.

A popular sport in Soviet days that suffered in the 1990s due to lack of state support and profits, the quality of Ukrainian hockey teams and games has noticeably improved in recent years, thanks to the financial backing of the nation's oligarchs.

It’s still far from NHL standards, but an increasingly competitive field and financial disputes across the Atlantic mean fans can get a glimpse of players from the world’s top league this year. 

A salary dispute between NHL team owners and players has indefinitely frozen the league’s operation. As a result, NHL professionals Ruslan Fedotenko, Anton Babchuk and Alexei Ponikarovsky have signed on to play for Ukraine’s best team, Donetsk-based Donbass. 

If you want to see them play live, however, you will have to make the trip east to Donetsk.  The Donbass team has this season stepped up to play in the Russian-dominated Continental Hockey League, a.k.a. KHL.

Those that make the trip may get a chance to see NHL superstars in action, the likes of Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Ovechkin. All three are sitting out the NHL lockout in Russia by playing for local teams competing in the KHL, which also has boasts clubs from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Latvia.

Donbass hockey team forward Ruslan Fedotenko (R) chases down an opponent from Russia’s Atlant team. The Kyiv-born professional hockey player has returned to play on Ukrainian ice after the NHL season fell into an indefinite freeze amid a financial dispute between players and team owners.

Donbass has ruled Ukrainian hockey ever since multi-millionaire Deputy Prime Minister Boris Kolesnikov started financing it.  The hockey-crazed politician launched a satellite hockey channel last year that carries most local and many foreign hockey games. The annual budget for Kolesnikov’s Donbass team alone stands at $25 million.

Kolesnikov is a close friend and associate of Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, who heavily finances soccer in Ukraine.

Boris Kolesnikov (L), Ukraine’s deputy prime minister and a major ice hockey fan, attends a game with Anatoly Brezvin (R), president of the Ukrainian Hockey Federation.

Asked by the Kyiv Post why he pours so much into hockey, Kolesnikov said: “I have loved hockey since my childhood, from the first game [I saw when the] Soviet hockey team was one of the best in the world.”

“Is hockey a business for me?” Kolesnikov asked rhetorically breaking into laughter. “Not yet [in Ukraine.] There are no profitable clubs in Ukraine yet,” but we are setting up a “foundation.”
If you can’t make it all the way east to Donetsk to see Ukraine’s best team in action, you can get a feel for Ukrainian ice hockey in Kyiv by seeing local teams duke it out in Ukraine’s Professional Hockey League, also known as the PHL. They are not backed by as much financial muscle as Kolesnikov pours into Donbass, but the games are entertaining.

“There is a real serious struggle for every puck, every square meter of skating rink,” said Yuriy Zagorodny, CEO of Ukraine’s Professional Hockey League, also known as the PHL.

Reno Domenico, an American residing in Ukraine who has attended Ukrainian hockey games, adds: Ukrainian hockey is good. Right now it’s better than the NHL, because the NHL is not playing.”

PHL games commenced on Sept. 11 and last through April. Kyiv has three teams playing in the league.
Sokil Kyiv, a legend from Soviet days, claims to be financially backed by steel tycoon Serhiy Taruta. Kyiv’s Berkut team says politician-lawmaker David Zhvania is its financial backer.

Both teams are scheduled to clash on Oct. 8 and Oct. 10 at Kyiv’s Palats Sportu arena. 

If you get a chance to attend these games held at the Ukrainian capital’s main hockey and basketball venue, take it.  For lack of financial backing, most games in Kyiv are played at smaller arenas far from downtown. Many games are held at the Terminal shopping center-water park located just outside of Kyiv, in Brovary.

Kyiv’s third team, Kompanyon-Naftogaz, is backed by state gas and oil company Naftogaz. Sources said its patron is Yuriy Boyko, who used to head Naftogaz and currently serves as energy minister, and is reportedly an avid hockey player. The team plays out of the ATEK rink near Svyatoshyn metro station.
Kharkiv mayor-businessman Mykhailo Dobkin has reportedly started financing Kharkiv’s Dynamo. Reportedly financed by businessman Ihor Churkin, Lviv’s Levy team has likewise demonstrated itself to be competitive.

In total, there are seven teams in Ukraine’s league. Zagorodny said annual budgets start at a minimum of $700,000, but amassing even such small sums through sponsorships and donations is a major problem.

In Soviet days, teams were subsidized by the various state ministries and agencies, such as the army or police. They drew huge crowds of fans. Today, the teams play at stadiums that seat from several hundred to several thousand fans. 

Donbass’ Druzhba Donetsk stadium is one of the biggest actively used ice hockey rinks, with 4,000 seats. Kolesnikov has talked of building a much bigger stadium for his Donbass team.

Kyiv’s Palats Sportu, when used for ice hockey, can seat 7,000. But most cash-strapped teams are not, for now, willing to pay the high fees for renting the facility in the hopes that one day they will sell enough tickets to fans.

Help could be on the way. 

On Oct. 2, Ukraine’s government announced that it would boost budget financing for hockey by nearly 36 percent, to some $450 million. Spent in coming years, the funds will be used to reconstruct exiting stadiums, training centers and build new ones.

Kyiv Post staff writer Denis Rafalsky can be reached at rafalsky@kyivpost.com.

Oct. 8 & Oct. 10 games at in Kyiv between Sokil and Berkut at Palats Sportu

Ticket Prices: between Hr 20-150.

Tickets can be purchased at the stadium, Sportyvna Ploshcha 1 (044-360-7755), or through online ticket offices, such as: http://ua.kassir.com/kiev/db/text/200305711.html (Russian language only)

You can find a schedule of the Donbas team’s games and buy tickets on the English language version of its website at: http://hcdonbass.com/?lang=en

A Russian-language schedule of all PHL games, without locations, can be found on this site: http://phl-ua.com.ua/chempionat/kalendar

For additional information in Russian and Ukrainian, see www.bighockey.ua, the website for Boris Kolesnikov’s Hockey television channel.

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