By Alexei Ponikarovsky
My story begins at age five in Kiev, Ukraine...
When I was growing up, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.
That changed when I was about 10 or 11 years old.
As a young hockey player before the change the area featured a lot of great hockey as we played all around with all different teams from the Soviet Union.
We went to Moscow a few times and we played teams there.
We played all over the place.
After the change it sort of narrowed down to whatever we had in Ukraine.
But in Ukraine we only had like two teams, so we kind of were pushed out because of the separation.
So we started going to more places in Europe. We went to Switzerland and played tournaments there. We went to Poland, Hungary, France, Germany, all over the place, to keep playing all the time. We tried to get as much playing time as we could because there weren’t any tournaments or anything going on in Ukraine at that time because the government didn’t pay attention to sports. They had just separated from Russia and started doing their own business, you know, politics and this and that. Nobody was paying attention to youth hockey.
|Alexei Ponikarovsky's career started in Toronto with the Maple Leafs in 2000-01. (AP) |
Going back to when I first started to play, I basically learned to skate from scratch. I think it was the toughest part first to be able to stand on the skates and not fall down all the time, so that was the toughest part. And after that you learn how to skate, you kind of start paying more attention to the stick with the puck. The first maybe half a year we just were learning how to skate, not too much fun with the puck or anything else. We wanted to do it but coach never let us.
I loved the game right away. As I was growing up I was playing all kinds of sports and not just hockey. Hockey was more kind of serious for me but I played basketball as well and soccer a lot too. But before I actually went to hockey school I was playing like street hockey by our apartment building with other friends all the time. And I was just eager to kind of go and learn how to skate because you’re running in street hockey. We played with the ball whenever it was summer time and we played with the puck when it was winter time all the time. So I just wanted to learn to skate.
Thinking about big-time hockey for me was the Soviet Union league. I don’t remember what it was called back then but it was a championship league for sure. We actually had a team that played in that championship so as I was growing up and playing as a kid, we always were going and watching the games with big teams coming in and play our team in Kiev. There was like Dynamo Moscow coming in, Red Army team, like all these big teams from Moscow and all over the Soviet Union. So it was interesting and that’s what I was kind of looking forward to.
Then when we separated, that was all over. It was just gone in seconds. That’s it. We couldn’t go there, like we couldn’t play with those teams. We didn’t have money to do that. But as I was growing up I was always watching World Championships and how the Soviet national team was doing there, so that was probably the main thing that I was actually looking after.
|Just prior to joining the Kings as a free agent Alexei Ponikarovsky was acquired by Pittsburgh for their 2010 playoff run. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) |
I had just turned 10 years old when I began to get the sense that I could do something special with hockey. I wasn’t the captain of my team but we had like three guys who were my age basically and we were kind of ahead of other guys. You could tell that we were doing some things differently, better and faster. We had better skating abilities so back then my dad kind of started teaching me more. He did not push me but he explained to me to maybe try and see where it’s going to get me. As I was getting older, and when I turned 15, it kind of pushed me to move to Dynamo Moscow.
Actually when I was 15 years old, the coach of our team actually took five guys, the five best guys who he had. He said, ‘OK guys, if you want to really kind of try yourself and accomplish something we probably have to move to Dynamo because I have connections there and we’re just going to go there for tryouts.’ And he basically had a meeting with our parents to actually get their permission as well to go with us and see if we can actually stay there and play.
Our parents were kind of shocked because we were 15 years old and we had to move away from Kiev and go to Moscow to the big city by ourselves basically with the coach even though the coach was not always going to be there. So it was tough but I think that was the turning point I would say because when I went to Moscow everything started there. That’s where I became the player I think I am today. I started developing more because there was a lot of competition.
I was ultimately drafted by Toronto in 1998 and I made my debut in the NHL in 2000-01. When I was drafted I was playing professionally in Russia. I started there in 1995 and I played for the farm team. At 18 I was practicing and playing with the main team as a young guy. By 2000 I was playing full-time but then I decided to come here and try my luck in North America.
When I was drafted I knew I wanted to come here and play eventually. Back then, though, I was taking things one step at a time. I wanted to see when and where I got drafted and we were going to take it from there. I was happy to get drafted by Toronto and I wanted to test myself here. It would be a dream come true for me to come here. I knew that I would accomplish something because it would be such a change.
Two years after I got drafted, I thought that was the good time to move overseas. The money in Russia back then wasn’t what it is like today over there. I had nothing to lose to come and try it over here. I made the decision and there were a lot of skeptics. My coaches were against it. But I was pretty determined to prove everybody wrong.