With Canadian support, Ukraine men's hockey team ready to take on world at University Games

Gleb Krivoshapkin, above, didn't play hockey for six months, but remains one of Team Ukraine's leaders for the Lake Placid 2023 World University Games. (Submitted by Ukrainian Hockey Federation - image credit)
Gleb Krivoshapkin, above, didn't play hockey for six months, but remains one of Team Ukraine's leaders for the Lake Placid 2023 World University Games. (Submitted by Ukrainian Hockey Federation - image credit)

Gleb Krivoshapkin spent countless hours in the dressing rooms of Ukrainian hockey arenas in 2022.

The Russian invasion has forced Ukrainians to take shelter from the shelling, caused emergency alarms and constant power outages, but that hasn't stopped Krivoshapkin from preparing to represent his country on the ice.

"I didn't play for six months, and I couldn't think or do anything about hockey because of the war," Krivoshapkin told CBC Sports from Kremenchuk, where he now plays for HK Kremenchuk in the Ukrainian Hockey League.

"I wasn't playing in my hometown in February. I had to drive back and pack all my stuff in the middle of the night when the rockets and explosives woke me up."

Keeping hockey alive in Ukraine during the war is no easy task, and the game isn't thriving. Still, it survives with international tournaments and national teams taking priority.

"We are not in high spirits because there is war every day, but since we started we realize our responsibility," Georgii Zubko, president of the Ukrainian Hockey Federation, told CBC Sports.

"For hockey, the national team is our top priority and we must keep preparing for international competitions to represent Ukraine on the global stage."

While Ukraine competes in the lower tiers of the International Ice Hockey Federation's age groups, its men's national under-25 university hockey team has qualified for the World University Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., which begin Thursday.

The University Games feature 1,443 student athletes and 43 countries, and are the second largest multi-sport winter event behind only the Winter Olympics. The Ukrainian men's hockey team accounts for nearly half of Ukraine's 58 athletes set to attend.

Ukraine will open play on Thursday against Team Canada before facing Sweden, Japan, Czech Republic and Latvia to close group play. The Olympic Center, site of USA hockey's 1980 "Miracle on Ice," will host the semifinals, bronze-medal game and final.

Since the war began, arenas in Severodonetsk, Druzhkivka, Donetsk, Kramatorsk, Mariupol, Kherson and Melitopol have been lost or destroyed. The recently resumed Ukrainian Hockey League plays in just two arenas. Even then, power isn't a guarantee.

On Jan. 3, Russian missiles levelled the Altair Arena in the town of Druzhkivka, home to eight-time Ukraine Hockey League champion HC Donbass. It was the Donetsk-based club's third arena that Russian forces destroyed.

Submitted by Ukrainian Hockey Federation
Submitted by Ukrainian Hockey Federation

'Friends and supporters' of Ukrainian hockey

When Ukraine faces Team Canada, it takes the ice against a supportive nation. It's also unlikely the Ukrainian team would be at the Games if it weren't for the help of Canadian universities, sponsors and communities supporting its journey.

Ahead of the Games, Ukraine faced Canada West U Sports teams as part of the Hockey Can't Stop Tour, scheduling games against Saskatchewan, Calgary, Alberta and Manitoba, which has benefited Ukrainian hockey and its Lake Placid ambition.

"Canada has been one of the biggest friends and supporters of Ukraine and Ukrainian hockey," Zubko said. "The Ukrainian Hockey Federation addressed Hockey Canada, and they, along with private sponsors, were willing to help Ukrainian hockey for the tour and the University Games."

@UCDinos/Twitter
@UCDinos/Twitter

The Canadian tour came together with the help of Canadian universities, TSN hockey commentator Gord Miller and sponsors such as Tim Hortons, Sobeys, Bell, Sporting Life and Ticketmaster.

"It's extremely humbling to help in any way, and it's something we take a lot of pride in given what's happening in Ukraine," Ben Matchett, Team Canada's chef de mission and Calgary Dinos athletic director, told CBC Sports. "It's one of those things that is way bigger than hockey or sports; this is an opportunity for our guys to learn some life lessons and understand the difficulty this incredible group of [Canadian] athletes have had."

The team has also received warm welcomes from Canadians, Ukrainian refugees, as well as Canadians of Ukrainian descent.

"For most of them, it's not only about hockey. It's more about the support and showing that they're willing to help," Aleksandra Slatvytska, head of the tour, said on Saturday.

Ukraine's roster comprises student athletes who have been studying virtually, unlike their Canadian counterparts. It is led by head coach Vadim Shakhraychuk, who played for Ukraine at its first Unversity Games in 1995 in Jaca, Spain, and is also the longtime coach of goaltender Savva Serdiuk.

"It has been my dream to play against Canada and in Canada or the USA because that is hockey to me, and Canadian people have always been so nice," said Serdiuk, who recently won the Ukrainian National Championship with Sokil Kyiv.

"It's funny because Canada is the best country in hockey, and we don't have that in Ukraine, but we are excited to play against and with Canada to test ourselves."

It was no easy task getting the players to North America, as all of the team's members currently fall within the requirements to serve in the Ukrainian armed forces. However, national representation on the world stage serves as a reminder that the Ukrainian hockey dream remains alive.

"The war has changed our lives but has never changed our plans," Zubko said.

"We are standing strong because the whole world is standing side by side with us, and we want to continue to be on the big stage."