By Olena Goncharova – Kyiv Post
Oleksiy Zhytnyk looks sadly at what used to be his ice hockey training venue, the Avangard Ice Rink Arena. It’s where he started his path to professional hockey with the Sokil (Falcon) Kyiv Youth Ice Hockey School.
The arena stands dark and abandoned, its floor covered in dust and building materials piled chaotically all around. Not a single puck has hit the ice here for many years – and there’s not even any ice.
For Zhytnyk, a Ukrainian former professional defenseman, who has played 1,085 games in the National Hockey League, including two Stanley Cup finals — with the Los Angeles Kings in 1992-93 and the Buffalo Sabres in the 1998-99, it’s a depressing picture.
“At least there was ice here before,” he says as the winter dusk begins to settle on this gray, unwelcoming building.
Every year Zhytnyk returns from his home in the United States to Kyiv to visit family. He stays connected with Ukraine’s hockey scene, although he’s not hopeful that it will recover quickly.
“We can compare (hockey) to a destroyed house – you can’t fix it with cosmetic changes,” he says, adding that its future is dim.
But things used to be different.
Sokil Kyiv Youth Ice Hockey School opened its doors to children in 1982. Sokil coaches raised a number of homegrown stars on their home rink at Avangard, including Zhytnyk, Dmitri Khristich and Nikolai Zherdev, the highest drafted player in Kyiv’s history.
But after Ukraine gained independence in 1991, many hockey rinks became less used than in Soviet times, when the nation’s clubs starred in the Soviet league. Some have been closed and turned into shopping malls or rented for office space since then.
Ukraine ended up having just 25 professional ice rinks.
In 2014, when the EuroMaidan Revolution forced disgraced former president Viktor Yanukovych out of the country, the 8,422 square meter building of the Avangard Ice Arena was returned to the government, after having been managed by trade unions.
A year later, a former Sokil player, Kostyantyn Simchuk, was appointed a head of Avangard, and it was granted the status of the Olympic training base. But in 2016, Avangard still lacks an actual ice rink.
Despite the tough conditions, the Sokil School still exists. They train around 250 kids, compared to nearly 500 in recent years when they had a rink in Avangard. Now the children train in Obolon district, where there’s a small rink under a bright yellow tent. According to the National Federation of Hockey, the rink does not meet the requirements to be a proper training venue because of its small size and lack of utilities.
Simchuk has been working side by side with Sports Ministry, National Federation and donors trying to restore the Avangard rink for Sokil Youth Hockey School.
The process is tough, he confessed, as they had to undergo a number of court hearings regarding ownership, and work out reconstruction plans that will help to access how much money they will need to bring hockey back to the Avangard.
The past achievements of Sokil School and its professional team, which won the 1985 bronze medal in the Soviet championship, are of little help when it comes to the school’s survival.
“I’m not a businessman, I’m a hockey player,” Simchuk says. “I can’t even talk about the money Avangard will need, because there’s no plan yet.” He estimates that the skating rink reconstruction could be completed in some five months and it would cost at least $500,000 – but those figures are preliminary ones.
On Nov. 9, Canadian Ambassador Roman Waschuk visited the Avangard facilities.
“We can help to spread the word on potential of (Ukrainian hockey) in Canada,” Waschuk told the Kyiv Post. “But it’s up to Ukrainians to work on the nation’s hockey.”
Pavlo Bulgak, an advisor to the sports minister told the Kyiv Post that the Avangard Ice Arena is undergoing a facility audit to establish how much equipment it will need to resume work: “Lots of it was stolen before Avangard was returned to the government. We need to find the equipment, so Avangard can become a real hockey hub for the city’s team.”
However, Simchuk is not alone campaigning for Ukrainian hockey. His biggest support, he says, are mostly parents of young Sokil players and hockey enthusiasts.
A couple of years ago, Taras Dumych, a partner with law firm Wolf Theiss, began to help raising awareness about school’s conditions.
Dumych, a native of Lviv, says he’s always been a fan of the Kyiv team. “I believe that Sokil could have a rebirth, like a phoenix,” Dumych said, adding that this could happen if there are joint efforts by the authorities and the hockey fan community.
There are only three rinks in the capital, including one at central Palats Sportu, which will host the World Hockey Championship in Division 1A for the first time in April 2017. In comparison, there are at least seven rinks in Minsk, the capital of neighboring Belarus.
Olga Drobotko, whose 11-year-old son is a goaltender with Sokil, is frustrated by the country’s inability to sustain its ice rinks. She still hopes, however, that Avangard will become a place for her son to train in the future.
Now she regularly drives her son Illiya to a private hockey school so he can master his skills, as well as to Sokil.
Drobotko says she’s happy for her son’s passion, but concerned about his future in professional hockey.
Drobotko sets an alarm for early morning: her son’s daily training routine starts at 5:45 a.m. in the unheated tent where Sokil Youth Hockey School plays for now.
And the Sokil School still is still going, even though Sokil’s professional team was forced to forfeit games in 2013 due to the lack of funding.
“In fact, there’s no hockey in Ukraine,” Drobotko says. “But my son often tells me that hockey is the only thing he excels at.”
That’s what has kept her motivated to wake up early to take her son to training sessions.