(Reuters) – Ukraine’s national ice hockey players have been forced to train with air raid sirens interrupting practice, sending them underground for cover as they worry about their loved ones, but they have managed to keep their focus.
The team visited Hungary this month as part of preparations for the third-tier world championships in Estonia.
Their training program in Miskolc included two friendly games against Hungary, both of which they won – against a team scheduled to play in the first-tier championship, two full divisions higher than Ukraine.
“It’s kind of weird,” said assistant coach Konstantin Simchuk. “Somebody in the war and somebody just playing hockey… We understand that we have to keep it moving, we have to play hockey and we have to show probably to all the world that we are still alive.”
For player Igor Merezhko, travelling to Hungary meant much more than two victories against the hosts – it meant a reunion with his best friend from the heavily shelled Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, now occupied by Russia.
Merezhko, 24, was playing for the Russian club Rubin Tyumen when he woke up on Feb. 24 last year, the first day of the Russian invasion, to learn that Russia had bombed Mariupol where his friend Vadim Mazur played.
“I didn’t actually think about family first, I think about my friend, Vadim … I texted him first,” Merezhko recalled.
Staying in Russia was no longer an option. He played a few more games for the Russian team as he could not end his contract right away. Then he broke his jaw on the ice, giving him the chance to leave. After rehabilitation, he signed up with Danish club Odense Bulldogs.
His friend Mazur moved to play for the club Sokil Kyiv, which won the Ukrainian championship this year. The two, sharing a room in a hotel in Hungary, had a lot to catch up on.
Merezhko, who has not visited Ukraine in two years, said he agreed with the decision of the International Ice Hockey Federation to exclude the Russian and Belarusian teams from world championships next season.
“I’d say right now they don’t need to play in Olympics and other stuff, but in the future, yeah, I would want to play against them because they are good players if you look at the quality … but you don’t want to play them right now.”
This view was shared by others on the team. Players coming from Ukraine have trained in tough conditions, with several ice rinks destroyed or damaged and air raid alerts interrupting practice. Several players left to join the army.
Assistant national coach Simchuk, also head coach for Sokil Kyiv, said he had played in Russia for eight seasons and still had friends there but playing against Russia was inconceivable now.
“I can’t even imagine how it’s possible to be on the same ice,” Simchuk said.
While spirits ran high for the 26 Ukrainian players in Hungary, with jokes flying around the locker room, thoughts about the war were never far away.
“The best motivation for all of us is to represent our country (against) the best sides, especially (as) human beings, and then in hockey,” said Gleb Krivoshapkin, 22, who plays for the Ukrainian team HK Kremenchuk. He was born and raised in Kharkiv, heavily damaged by Russian missile strikes, where his parents still live.
Krivoshapkin played in the United States in the 2019-2020 season but said he would not leave Ukraine to play for a foreign club while the war was still raging.
In January he went back to Kharkiv to see his parents and found many buildings and destroyed, and ice rinks badly damaged. Asked what kept him in Ukraine, he said it was home and family.
“This is where I was born, this is where I was living most of the time,” he said. “This is the place I love the most.”