War forces Fedotenko out of Ukraine

Donetsk Airport was reduced to rubble in the confrontation with pro-Russian rebels. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

It seemed like such a perfect fit when Ukrainian-born Ruslan Fedotenko signed a three-year deal with HC Donbass of the Kontinental Hockey League on July 2, 2013.

With a résumé that includes stints with five NHL teams over 12 seasons, and Stanley Cup victories with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, he was already his country's top hockey export. A decade after representing Ukraine at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, Fedotenko returned home during the 2012-13 NHL lockout to play with Donbass, a club located in the southeastern city of Donetsk. Offered a generous salary and an opportunity to help build hockey in Ukraine, he was hailed as a hero when he returned for a second go-around.

Just 20 months after being named captain and becoming the face of Ukrainian hockey, Fedotenko, 36, is now skating with the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League. It's his first minor league stint since he broke into the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers, in 2000. But any career struggles Fedotenko has encountered are nothing compared to the violence that has engulfed his home country.

"A lot of people are dying [in Ukraine] every day, innocent people," Fedotenko said. "It puts perspective. I didn't find a [NHL] team yet, but at least I'm alive and I have peace over my head versus people who I still talk to back in Donetsk who go shelter to shelter and are just trying to survive bombings."

One year since massive protests in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev resulted in bloodshed and the exile of President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine has engaged in an escalating war with pro-Russian separatists. A ceasefire brokered in early February now appears shaky as the violence has continued. Fedotenko's family remains safe around Kiev and Odessa, but he still communicates with friends in Donetsk, which has become a central region in this war.

"I'm still able to Skype with them, the Internet is still working, so that has been good," Fedotenko said. "At least you know they're safe and alive."

Since leaving Ukraine at age 16 to pursue his NHL dream, Fedotenko has married an American and become a U.S. citizen. Signing with Donbass offered a new opportunity in a city that at the time was brimming with possibilities.

Team owner/president Boris Kolesnikov had already helped bring the 2012 UEFA Euro Cup soccer tournament to Ukraine by the time he was awarded a KHL expansion team. He began building rinks across Ukraine and worked tirelessly to grow the sport. Last year, the club broke ground on a 16,000-seat arena. Offering a wealthy contract to a national hero such as Fedotenko was the next step in this Ukrainian hockey renaissance.

"I felt I had a great opportunity to give something back and help restore hockey there," Fedotenko said. "I believe I can still play in the NHL, but I just felt like I don't want to go to Ukraine when I'm 40 and can't help the team much. I feel like that was a good time. But obviously it was not the right time."

Donbass finished second in the Tarasov Division and set franchise attendance records in the 2013-14 season, its second in the KHL. Not being subjected to a limit on foreign players allowed the team to produce a competitive roster featuring players from around the globe. So when it came time to unite a locker room divided along numerous national and linguistic lines, Fedotenko emerged as a leader.

"Just getting an apartment and setting up things and getting my bank accounts ... if I needed anything, he was the first one I called," said goaltender Michael Leighton, a former teammate of Fedotenko's with Donbass and the Flyers. "It made it a really easy transition for me to have him there."

Fedotenko's guidance wasn't restricted to the team. He also proved invaluable to his wife, Debbie, who was going through her own transition.

"I did not speak the language and I found the culture to be vastly different," Debbie Fedotenko said. "That part was difficult for me. I'm very much an extrovert and I talk a lot. That isn't the way they approach things [in Ukraine]."

As the winds of change blew through Ukraine, protests around Donetsk gradually grew more fervent. By the time HC Donbass was set to play Game 7 of its opening-round playoff series against Dinamo Riga, the KHL ruled that Donetsk was no longer safe and moved the matchup to Bratislava, Slovakia.

Days after Donbass beat Riga 3-1 to advance to the conference semifinals, KHL officials ruled that security risks required the team to play the remainder of its home playoff games in Bratislava. The club protested the decision, calling it "contrived and politically motivated."

It was a powerful statement from the club considering the KHL connections to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Though not an official member of the league's administration, Putin has consistently supported the KHL and even publicly taken credit for creating it. He is also a close friend to certain teams' billionaire Russian executives, including SKA St. Petersburg president Gennady Timchenko and Moscow Dynamo president Arkady Rotenberg, who also both own a share of their respective clubs.

Fair or not, the decision proved prescient. Full-scale war hadn't yet descended on Donetsk by the time Donbass lost in six games to Lev Prague in the conference semis, but some players were ready to begin their offseason elsewhere.

"The protests were getting a little more riled up and there were a couple of people shot and stabbed one night when we were playing a game," said Leighton. "The season ended and I was eager to get home, just to get out of there and get home to my family and make sure I was safe. That was the top priority at the end of the season."

With his KHL season over and Debbie back stateside, Fedotenko trained briefly with the Ukrainian national team in Eastern Russia before an injury forced him out of the world championship. His flight from Moscow to Donetsk was greeted by Ukrainian military carrying automatic weapons. He flew home to Tampa the next day. Two days later, Donetsk's airport was closed. It has since been reduced to rubble by prolonged bombings.

Four weeks after the KHL season ended, HC Donbass' arena was ransacked by rebels, who looted the facility before setting it on fire. No one was hurt in the attack, but the club decried the acts as the "cynical and impudent behavior of terrorists."

In June, the club officially announced it wouldn't ice a team in 2014-15. Shortly thereafter, the 2015 IIHF Division IA World Championship, originally scheduled to take place in Donetsk, was moved to Krakow, Poland.

Looking for somewhere to play, Fedotenko earned an invitation to the New Jersey Devils' training camp in September but was cut.

The news from Donetsk didn't get any better as Fedotenko looked to resuscitate his NHL career in Iowa, where he signed a professional tryout agreement on Jan. 20. The toughest news might have come two months ago, when he was notified that Katya, a young cafe employee he befriended, had died during a bombing.

"They said it's even worse since the [ceasefire] agreement, more active bombing than prior to the ceasefire," Fedotenko said. "On top of it, the economy is just tanking there. It's unfortunate."

Fedotenko isn't terribly confident that hockey will return to Donetsk in 2015-16. He confirmed that all team staff had been laid off but could return if the situation in Ukraine stabilizes. Until then, he'll be looking for another chance in the NHL and thinking about his countrymen.

"You just hear the stories," he said. "They start bombing the schools or the hospitals. They know the kids are there. They're kids. They're not part of it. Why would somebody do that? I guess I just can't understand that part at all."