Wayne Gretzky is regarded as the greatest hockey player of all time, but many don’t know that he has Ukrainian origins. Even Ukrainians themselves.

Kyiv-based filmmaker Volodymyr Mula set out to change that with his “Uke: The Untold Story of Hockey Legends” documentary. It chronicles the contribution of hockey players with Ukrainian heritage to North America’s National Hockey League, which celebrated its 103rd anniversary on Nov. 26.

“My goal was to show that these former NHL players are proud of their Ukrainian heritage,” Mula told the Kyiv Post after working on the documentary for three years. “Each of their unique stories of victory inspired me to complete this film.”

As director and producer, Mula dug through archives to find over 50 players of Ukrainian descent who have won the league’s main Stanley Cup, and he licensed NHL’s footage of their performances. He interviewed about 10 of them or their family members in Canada and the U.S.


Gretzky, who is on the list of history’s greatest athletes in any sport, along with Michael Jordan, Pelé and Babe Ruth, is also in the movie.

The 90-minute film comes out in theaters in Ukraine on Dec. 3. Mula hopes to have the Canadian and U.S. premieres in 2021 if the COVID‑19 pandemic subsides. After that, the movie will be released on the Amazon Prime Video streaming platform in the U.S. and the U.K.

The trailer for the “Uke” documentary film.

The heritage

Mula says that children of Ukrainian immigrants helped establish and develop the NHL, created in 1917 in Canada and expanded in 1924 to include teams from the U. S. The first player of Ukrainian extraction to win the Stanley Cup was Jack Leswick with Chicago Blackhawks in 1934.

Some 275,000 Ukrainians fled to Canada, escaping national and economic oppression, two world wars and Bolshevism in the first half of the 20th century. In Canada’s cold climate, they worked hard on land that was free, while their children found something exciting to do in long winters — hockey.


“These children saw how hard their parents worked and wanted to achieve more from hockey,” Mula says. “This Ukrainian hard work and desire to win helped them reach success.”

The father of Eric Nesterenko, the Stanley Cup winner as a center with Chicago Blackhawks in 1961, was a nationalist from Chernihiv Oblast who fought against the Bolsheviks. Mula says that Nesterenko compared his father’s struggle with that of modern Ukrainians defending from the Russian aggression.

“Ukrainians fought against everybody — they wanted their independence,” Nesterenko says in the documentary.

This spirit could be a part of the reason why Ukrainians have made such excellent hockey players, according to Orest Kindrachuk. The successful hockey center was also born to Ukrainian immigrants to Canada, and as a rookie won two Stanley Cups with Philadelphia Flyers in 1974 and 1975.

Kindrachuk says in the film that Ukrainians were very brave and tough people, “and that’s probably where we got it from.”

Other Stanley Cup winners of Ukrainian descent that appear in “Uke” include Eddie Shack (1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967 with Toronto Maple Leafs), Jeff Chychrun (1992, Pittsburgh Penguins), Ken Daneyko (1995, 2000 and 2003, New Jersey Devils) and Ruslan Fedotenko (2004 with Tampa Bay Lightning and 2009 with Pittsburgh Penguins).

Jerry Sawchuk, the son of the legendary hockey goaltender Terry Sawchuk, poses for a photograph with souvenirs dedicated to his father in White Lake, U.S.A. in December 2018. (TeleProstir Studio)

The legends

But there are also athletes whose figures and achievements reach beyond trophies. Four players of Ukrainian origin are on the list of 100 Greatest NHL Players, selected by distinguished members of North America’s hockey community. Their stories are also showcased in Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame.

One of them is Johnny Bucyk, who led the Boston Bruins to two Stanley Cup championships in 1970 and 1971. The parents of the long time Boston left winger came from Lviv Oblast. But his father died when Johnny was 11, so his mother had to work two jobs.

“Hockey was the main sport,” Bucyk says in the movie. “We started out playing a lot of street hockey.”

The most iconic but also tragic figure in hockey history is Terry Sawchuk, one of the best goaltenders ever to play the game. The four-time Stanley Cup champion with Detroit Red Wings in 1952, 1954, 1955 and with Toronto Maple Leafs in 1967, Sawchuk was born to a family of immigrants from western Ukraine.

He died at only 40 after a life of multiple injuries, alcoholism and depression. He’s one of the few players elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame just one year after his final season. Mula interviewed Sawchuk’s son, Jerry, for the movie, who said his father spoke Ukrainian.


“They called my dad ‘Uke’ all the time. That just stuck on him everywhere he went,” Jerry Sawchuk says in the documentary.

This “Uke” or “Ukie” monicker given by Canadians to Ukrainian immigrants and then their descendants among hockey players inspired the film’s title.

One hockey legend who refused to talk to Mula and his film crew was Mike Bossy, a record-breaking scorer with New York Islanders. Bossy was a crucial element of the Islanders’ four-year reign as Stanley Cup champions in 1980–1983.

But the filmmaker could not ignore Bossy’s contribution and found that his grandfather was a soldier with the Ukrainian People’s Republic that opposed the Bolsheviks. In Canada, Bossy’s grandfather collected money to help overthrow the Soviet Union and defended national minorities.

Wayne Gretzky (R), a Canadian of Ukrainian descent regarded as the greatest hockey player of all time, and Volodymyr Mula, the director of the “Uke” documentary, pose for a photo with a Ukrainian flag after an interview in St. Louis, U.S.A. in January 2020. (TeleProstir Studio)

The Great One

“Uke” would not be complete without Gretzky, nicknamed “the Great One” when he was just 10. Gretzky’s otherworldly talent made him the leading scorer in NHL history, with more goals and assists than any other player. He still holds 60 NHL records and won the Stanley Cups four times in 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1988 with Edmonton Oilers.

While Gretzky’s mother was Irish-English, his father Walter Gretzky’s origins have been disputed.

Some claim Walter is Belarusian because his father Terentiy came from the village of Ogdemer in modern-day Belarus. Others say he is Russian because those were the lands of the Russian Empire. Ukrainians argue that Ogdemer is part of the ethnic Ukrainian region of Beresteischyna.


While Walter’s mother Maria came from the village of Panovychi in Ukraine’s Ternopil Oblast, some claim that she was Polish because the village had a large population of ethnic Poles.

But there is one strongest argument that Terentiy and Maria were Ukrainians. They spoke Ukrainian — the language that only ethnic Ukrainians spoke when Ukraine was part of the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian empires.

“I learned Ukrainian first because my mother didn’t know how to speak English until later,” Wayne Gretzky’s father Walter told Mula in the film. “So Ukraine is the motherland of our family.”

Wayne Gretzky himself had not confirmed his Ukrainian origins before “Uke.” He only did so indirectly by attending a “United for Ukraine” fundraiser in 2014 that helped Ukrainian medics at the frontline of Russia’s war, organized by Eugene Melnyk, the Ukrainian Canadian owner of Ottawa Senators.

“We had a lot of Ukrainian influence in our family,” Gretzky said in a speech there.

To put all doubts to rest, the filmmakers had to interview Gretzky himself, which wasn’t easy. Gretzky’s public appearances cost $100,000, Mula says, and the filmmaker exhausted every other possibility he could find. He even stalked the star athlete at a hotel in Toronto, but Gretzky just passed him by.


“Uke’s” total budget was Hr 5.76 million ($203,000), 77% of which Ukraine funded through the State Film Agency. The rest was crowdfunded by individuals and organizations in Ukraine, Canada and the U. S. Ukrainian diaspora also helped greatly with logistics, Mula says.

When the shooting was almost complete, Kelly Hrudey, a Ukrainian Canadian goalie who played with Gretzky at Los Angeles Kings, helped arrange a meeting with the legend. For Mula, the interview was a reward for all his efforts over three years of filming.

“Gretzky absolutely recognizes his Ukrainian origins in the interview,” Mula says. “He also thoroughly knows Ukraine’s situation (with Russia’s war) and understands the geopolitics.”

For more on Gretsky’s views about his Ukrainian heritage, you have to see the film, Mula says.

“Uke” hits Ukrainian cinemas on Dec. 3 with screenings in Ukrainian. Canadian and U.S. premieres will be scheduled for 2021 if the pandemic abates. After that, the movie will be released through the Amazon Prime Video streaming platform in the U.S. and the U.K.

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