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Ukraine is No Stranger to Having NHL Presence

There might not be any Ukrainian-born NHLers in the game today, but the country has left its footprint on the league over the past few decades.

In the grand scheme of things today, hockey is not important. The lives of millions of Ukrainians right now is top of mind as the country is currently under invasion by Russia.

But, in a way, the sport we all love – the one that brings people from all parts of the world together – is still connected. Former NHL forward Dmitri Khristich told TSN's Gord Miller recently that the nation "is fighting hard, doing our best" to fight back against the attack. 

It's a name that sparked memories and showcases that Ukraine has had its impact on the NHL for the past couple of decades. Today, no NHLers come from Ukraine, but four NHLers that skate under the Ukrainian flag have played in at least 200 games – Dmitri Khristich, Ruslan Fedotenko, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Alexander Godynyuk. 

According to Elite Prospects, 30 players holding Ukrainian citizenship have been drafted to the NHL, including 2021 Vegas Golden Knights draft pick Artur Cholach. Cholach became the first Ukrainian to get drafted since Florida took Sergei Gaiduchenko in 2007, with St. Louis' Andrei Mikhnov being the only other player to be selected in the 21st century after getting taken in 2002. Cholach currently plays for the Barrie Colts, but he was also one of Ukraine's best players at the recent Division IB tournament.

Ukraine has participated as its own country internationally since 1993, having to fight its way up from a lower pool to make the top World Championship tournament in 1999. Since 2018, Ukraine has sat in Division IB, the third-highest IIHF World Championship event, but hasn't played since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ukraine sits 27th in the world rankings, which is now the lowest they've ever been. Back in 2003, Ukraine was the 11th-ranked team.

Statistically, Khristich has the points among Ukrainian NHLers with 259 goals and 596 points with Washington, Los Angeles, Boston and Toronto over 12 seasons from 1990-2002. Khristich played in the old Soviet Union league with Sokolv Kyiv before embarking on a successful NHL rookie campaign in 1990-91. That team plays in the Ukrainian league now, with former NHLer Alexei Zhitnik serving as the team president. 

Speaking of Zhitnik, he never represented Ukraine in a major international event despite being born in Kyiv. He played for the Soviets, CIS, the Unified Olympic Team and Russia in major international events, winning gold at the 1992 World Junior Championship and the Olympics shortly after. Zhitnik played 1,085 games during his career With Los Angeles, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Atlanta and the NY Islanders and was the first Soviet defender to play in 1,000 NHL games. Zhitnik wore a Ukrainian flag in an NHL all-star game for Team World but did play for Ukraine at the Maccabiah Games, an event that doesn't follow IIHF restrictions and is open to Jewish athletes.

One of the biggest names to come out of Ukraine is Ruslan Fedotenko, a 12-year NHLer with 366 points in 863 games. Fedotenko won two Stanley Cups with Tampa Bay and the Pittsburgh Penguins, scoring the game-winning goal in 2004 to lift Tampa to its first Cup. Fedotenko represented Ukraine at multiple events, including at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Sochi and in the team's attempt to make the 2014 Games. He even played in two seasons with Donbas Donetsk, serving as the captain in 2012-13 and 13-14.

One of the more recent names is Alexei Ponikarovsky, who had a 61-point campaign with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2008-09. Ponikarovsky also represented Ukraine at the 2002 Winter Games and joined again in the lead-up for the 2014 tournament, which Ukraine ultimately didn't make. He finished his career in the KHL, including a 32-game stint with Donetsk during the 2012-13 lockout, and ultimately made his mark as one of the best Ukrainians to ever play the game.

A few other Ukrainian-born players – Godynyuk, Igor Chibirev, Sergei Varlamov, Dmitri Yakushin and Olexander Vasilevski – had runs in the league from 1990-2013, but it's been a while since someone eligible to play for Ukraine's national hockey team has played in the NHL.

Many others that skated in the NHL have Ukrainian roots: Peter Bondra was born in Lutsk; Oleg Tverdovsky from Donetsk; Nikolai Zherdev and Anton Babchuk from Kyiv; and Vitali Vishnevski from Kharkiv. Those are some of the more prominent names, with all of them, minus Bondra from Czechia, have represented Russia internationally. All were born in the time of the Soviet Union. Even Auston Matthews has ties to Ukraine, playing with Kharkiv in the Quebec International Peewee tournament at one point.

Dmytro Timashov of Sweden and Alexander Chmelevski of the United States have Ukranian heritage, with both having some seeing some NHL action over the past few years. There's also Akim Aliu, who, while being born in Nigeria, grew up in Ukraine and has said in the past he'd play for the national team if asked.

So the NHL's connection to Ukraine is deep, and, hopefully, the pipeline continues to flow. Cholach was drafted despite only playing a handful of games in his native land, playing in a league that isn't among the strongest in Europe. The Golden Knights believed in him, and there's a chance the big, tough defender can make his way to the NHL at some point to continue the tradition.

But right now, the focus is on everyone's safety and hoping the conflict can end swiftly. Stay safe, everyone.


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