Shorthanded due to the ongoing civil war between the Ukrainian national leagues, the Ukrainian national hockey team showed courage this weekend even as they struggled to keep pace with the Christmas Cup – the last in a series of Euro Hockey Challenge events before next April. World’s Championships.
The previous Euro Hockey Challenge event in Budapest, Hungary, November 12-13, sparked a civil war in Ukrainian hockey that continues to rage.
On the eve of this tournament, Donbas Donetsk and HC Kramatorsk recalled some of their players in violation of the commitments of the national team. The Ukrainian Hockey League (UHL) has suspended players from the national league. Donetsk and Kramatorsk continued to play against the players, resulting in their expulsion from the league.
As Cartman of South Park, Donbas owner Borys Kolesnikov basically told UHL, “Fuck you guys – I’m coming home” and took on his team, the allied owner teams, his media partners. and corporate sponsors, and started his own league, the Ukrainian Hockey Super League.
The Ukrainian Hockey Federation (UHF) has recruited new teams for its rump UHL and has recruited its own media partners and corporate sponsors.
Then came the battle for the players – and public relations.
Sanction the non-sanctioned
The first front of this civil war was legal.
Donbas filed the first case, arguing that the suspension of his players by the UHF violated the Ukrainian Labor Code since the players were employees of the team and the federation prevented them from working.
The federation fired back, issuing a notice that any player participating in the SuperLeague would face penalties, saying in a statement
“I urge hockey players not to bury their careers and decide: are you playing for yourself or are you playing for all of us?“
This infuriated Serhiy Varlamov, a former NHL player and general manager of the SuperLeague. In an open letter to Heorhiy Zubko, president of the UHF, he addresses the players directly:
“I urge you to act exclusively within the framework of the Law and not to carry out the criminal orders of the UHF leadership … I ask you to inform me personally of all the facts of pressure on you, as on the organs of sports justice. I guarantee the provision of legal assistance and protection to all UHF victims.
As in any war, you must align your allies.
Thus, to strengthen legitimacy, the parties called on the big guns.
Vying for notoriety
The next front to open was the battle for influence, or the building of alliances.
The SuperLeague fired the opening salvo by asking the president of the Ukrainian National Olympic Committee, Serhiy Bubka, also of Donetsk, to release the ceremonial puck in the inaugural SuperLeague game. He then sat down for an interview with the SuperLeague press service.
“Today there should be as many clubs as possible to have a bigger competition,” Bubka told the SuperLeague. âWhen there is competition, the quality of our players increasesâ¦ Today we have to unite our efforts, do what we can to have as many clubs as possibleâ¦ all over Ukraine. Then the championship will be more competitive and the league will be stronger, so the quality of the game will increase. “
Bubka was traveling and was not available for comment this weekend, but her office referred the Kyiv Post to a statement that read:
“The NOC of Ukraine [hopes to] initiate a round table to discuss the existing problems between the Ukrainian Hockey Federation and the hockey clubs in order to establish a constructive dialogue and solve the problems â, adding that Bubka and the Ukrainian Minister of Youth and Sports, Vadym Gutzayt, hope to meet the UHF directly.
Not to be outdone, the UHF brought in IIHF president Luc Cardiff, who also met Bubka and Gutzayt.
“Of course, I know the situation of Ukrainian hockey well … because the case in Ukraine is unprecedented,“
he said in a statement that clearly sided with the federation.
âI can say the UHF is absolutely right. The first rule not to break [is that] clubs must ensure the participation of players in international competitions. This is the rule on which the principle of holding any international competition is based … [violating this] key rule of world hockey can lead to anarchy.
Of course, money makes the world of sport go round.
One of the main disagreements that precipitated the current civil war concerned league sponsorship and television rights.
Prior to the Ukrainian Hockey League division, matches were played at Ukrainian XSport, owned by Kolesnikov.
After an audit, Zubko accused XSport of not only failing to pay the league for the broadcast rights, but actually receiving payment from the league to play the matches on television.
Zubko also accused Kolesnkikov of making a sponsorship deal the league had with sports betting site VBet that would have allowed UHL to receive millions of UAH for broadcast rights. Donbas is sponsored by VBet rival Parimatch.
The split into two leagues saw rival betting companies revert to competing leagues – Vbet the UHL, Parimatch the SuperLeague.
Likewise, the SuperLeague is broadcast by XSport from Kolesnikov, while the UHL has worked with local broadcasters and broadcasts matches on YouTube.
The enigma of the player
The last front in this civil war is the battle of the players.
After the initial split, the two leagues scrambled to find additional teams – often with a wicked side.
After Bila Tserkva Bilyy Bars followed Donbas and Kramatorsk to the SuperLeague, many of his players and coaches remained in the UHL to form Brovary Sports & Professional College (BSPC).
Sokil Kyiv remained loyal to UHL, while the SuperLeague had UkrDonInvest founder Vitaliy Kropachev, who found SK Sokil Kyiv to compete directly with the more established Kyiv squad.
This has been a boon for Ukrainian players and those in the region who are retired or about to retire.
Druzhkivka Altair, a team founded after the launch of the SuperLeague, brought 41-year-old Denis Kochetkov out of recent retirement to become their player-coach.
Viktor Shakhvorostov, who played for Donbas in 2015-16, was brought in to Sokil Kyiv from the SuperLeague of Russian second division team HC Rostov. In an exclusive interview with the SuperLeague press service, he explained the reasons for his return.
“Family – plus they offered the best conditions,” he told the press service. “I thought [about it], weighed the pros and cons. It’s just that there were more advantages here [including family], so I made the decision.
Yet even with the influx of hockey teams and players to the country, the ban on SuperLeague players from the national team can be felt.
The first victim of this mess was the Ukrainian national hockey team, which lost all three matches in the Christmas Cup in Poland last weekend.
Ukraine got the tournament off to a good start, pushing Hungary into extra time before a terrible gift in the extra box saw the team fall 2-1 with just 8 seconds left.
It was another close game against the French favorite in Game 2, but a few exploits in Serhiy Pisarenko’s goal meant the French needed a diving goal save in the last moment of the game to secure a 2-1 victory. .
Ukraine were flat in Game 3 and never sought to disturb the Polish host as they fell to 0-3 with a 4-1 loss.
The Christmas Cup is part of the Euro Hockey Challenge – a series of exhibition tournaments between similarly ranked nations, designed to provide players with a national team experience ahead of the year-end IIHF tournaments.
Ukraine is hosting the next tournament, February 10-12 at the Kyiv Sports Palace before traveling to Katowice, Poland to play in Division 1B of the 2022 IIHF World Hockey Championships. April 25 to May 1 , Ukraine will face Estonia, Japan, Lithuania, Poland and Serbia for the chance to be promoted to Division 1A.
Whether or not they will field a full squad by then remains to be seen.
As with all wars, it will take a lot of goodwill and diplomatic leadership before that.