Ukraine ice hockey team, dodging air raids, play on ‘to show we’re still alive’

Amidst air raid sirens and the worry for their families amidst the conflict, Ukraine’s national ice hockey team has continued to train and play, displaying an inspiring level of focus and determination.

As part of preparations for the third-tier world championships in Estonia, the team wowed spectators in Hungary with victorious performances against a team that was scheduled to play in the first-tier championship prestigious leagues above them. However, training sessions were frequently disrupted by air raid alerts, with the players taking shelter underground.

Asst. Coach Konstantin Simchuk expressed a mixture of feelings about experiencing such disparate conditions, “It’s kind of weird,” he said. “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 team member, Igor Merezhko, his trip to Hungary for training, and the subsequent victories gained, meant a meaningful reunion with his best friend from the heavily shelled Ukrainian port city Mariupol, now occupied by Russia. Merezhko’s friend, Vadim Mazur, managed to escape from Mariupol and join a club in Kyiv. Meanwhile, Merezhko continued his career as part of the Danish club, Odense Bulldogs, and has not returned to Ukraine in two years.

The team’s resilience must be admired, with several players having left to join the army, and others having trained in incredibly difficult conditions due to damaged ice rinks and air raid alerts. Multiple players on the team have been adversely affected by or experienced the ongoing war in some way.

The exclusion of the Russian and Belarusian teams from world championships next season has been agreed upon by the International Ice Hockey Federation, and Ukraine team members support this decision. Although many advocate for the exclusion of these teams, some feel that in the future, Russian and Belarusian teams could perhaps still provide a worthy challenge.

Some of the players faced criticism for their decision not to leave Ukraine to play for foreign clubs, but their patriotism and loyalty to their families and country keep them motivated. Gleb Krivoshapkin, who plays for Ukraine team HK Kremenchuk, shared his views, stating that his love for his homeland and family are the reasons for his decision to remain in Ukraine during this time of need. Although Krivoshapkin was born and raised in heavily damaged Kharkiv, his love for his homeland keeps him playing hockey with the Ukraine team.

With all the difficulties that Ukraine is presently facing, hockey and ice rinks provide a welcome distraction and source of national pride for the players.

(Writing by Krisztina Than; reporting by Krisztina Than and Boldizsar Gyori; editing by Nick Macfie)

Although the Ukraine Ice Hockey Team has learned to cope with adversity, adapting to their surroundings and continuing to play, they are not the only group in Ukraine affected by the conflicts that have ravaged their country.

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