Note: This story originally appeared in The Hockey News' Playoff Preview issue.
Steen Hansen has spent a lot of time on the road, not only as a long-haul truck driver and owner of his own fleet, but also as one of the founding owners of the Aalborg Pirates hockey team, in Denmark’s elite Metal Ligaen. For nearly a decade, Hansen has followed his top-ranked team to games across the Nordic country.
Even still, with all of those hours of travel under his belt, he could not have been prepared for the journey he would make in late February 2022, to the border of Ukraine and Poland along with one of his players. It would perhaps be the most important road trip of his life.
The Aalborg Pirates, founded in their current form in 2012, have seen much success in recent years. This has been in part thanks to the acquisition of Russian winger Kirill Kabanov ahead of the 2017-18 season. After playing at the World U-18 Championship in 2009, Kabanov left Russia for Canada to play for the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats.
The New York Islanders then chose him in the third round of the 2010 draft. After a few seasons jumping around the AHL, ECHL, Swedish League and the KHL, Kabanov made his way to Aalborg, where he has come to be known as a passionate player, a team leader and a fan favorite.
In that first season with the Pirates, Kabanov helped the team to their first Metal Ligaen championship after holding top spot for the entirety of the season. Since then, apart from a one-season stint in Germany’s DEL the following year, Kabanov has remained in Aalborg, along with his family: Ukrainian fashion model Viktoriya Kuropyatnikova, and their two young sons, now four and six years old.
Kuropyatnikova often travels between Aalborg and Chernihiv, Ukraine, where the couple have an apartment and are currently building a house. And when Russian forces began bombing in Ukraine in February, Kuropyatnikova and the couple’s sons were there. Kabanov was in Aalborg.
In the first days of the war in Ukraine, Kabanov was sure his family would remain safe where they were. “No one expected this to happen,” Hansen said.
Even still, the owner tried to convince his player that it was time to go get his family out, before it got worse.
And then it did, quickly. “It was February 28, the fifth day of war,” Kuropyatnikova said. “Our city was being bombed non-stop. Downtown, where we live, there were missiles a few steps away from our building. We were sleeping at a bomb shelter.”
For both Kabanov and Kuropyatnikova, the decision to move was made quickly. With just one small bag, Kuropyatnikova, their children and her mother fled, leaving not only all of their possessions behind, but also her father, as per Ukrainian martial law.
To make it to the Polish border, Kuropyatnikova and the family had to travel first by car, then by bus, for two agonizing days across the war-torn country. To meet them, Hansen and Kabanov borrowed a seven-seater vehicle from a friend and drove 1,600 kilometres across Denmark, Germany and Poland for 14 straight hours, only stopping for gas. “I had never been to Poland before,” said Hansen.
But upon the men’s arrival at the small border crossing, Kuropyatnikova and her family could not be found. It was very cold there, Hansen described, as they searched for them for an hour. Turns out, the family had to make the final trek across the line by foot; eventually they appeared. “I was able to hug Kirill on March 2, at 5 a.m.,” Kuropyatnikova said. “It was very emotional, with hugs and tears.”
But before turning around and departing on the long journey back to Aalborg, Hansen said, “Vika saw one lady, and she was alone.” The woman needed a ride to meet people she knew in Poland. So the group took her along. After dropping off the lone refugee, the remaining trip was difficult. The group was exhausted and had to stop for short sleeping breaks in hotels along the way. But relief and gratitude guided them through those last legs. “I can’t stop being thankful to Steen for driving miles and miles with Kirill,” Kuropyatnikova said. “It means so much to us, and shows how he cares about Kirill not only hockey-wise but off-ice, too.”
Hansen was happy to help his player and friend. “I’ve known him a long time,” he said. “I had the chance to help him, so I did it.”
And when the group finally made it to Aalborg? “It was so special,” Hansen said. “When he saw Aalborg, Kirill felt he is home. He broke down. They were safe.”
When war first broke between two countries he loves so dearly, Kabanov could not continue playing hockey. The stress was too great for the veteran player, who sat out five games. But once he was able to return to Aalborg, with his family safe and sound, he got back right back on the ice. “I’m happy that Kirill was given some time to put his mind together,” Kuropyatnikova said. “This is very important, to have an understanding team.”
And the fans, she says, have also been rallying behind the family.
As for the team owner who insisted on personally driving his player to the edge of a war to rescue his family, Hansen has stayed relatively quiet about his role, shying away from much credit. “There is only one hero in this game here,” Hansen said, “and it’s Vika. She is so strong.”
The Pirates, meanwhile, finished first overall and were set to play in the final after a pair of series sweeps. “Kirill is looking good,” Hansen said. “It’s good for him to play.”