Passion lives on for Russian legends
You start playing hockey because you fall in love with the game.
You keep playing hockey because the love affair never ends.
It’s the same story whether you’re a beer leaguer or you played 1,085 games in the National Hockey League, like Alexei Zhitnik did.
Those days ended for Zhitnik, 43, in 2008, but the passion he feels when he’s on the ice has never waned and that’s why he was in Windsor on Monday with the Arsenal team from Ukraine playing in the 35-over division of the CARHA World Cup.
“It’s just something to do,” Zhitnik joked. “I had nothing else to do. “The guys invited me.” Yeah, they could find a spot on the roster for a guy who played in two Stanley Cup finals — with the Los Angeles Kings in 1992-93 and the Buffalo Sabres in 1998-99.
“It’s my second tournament,” Zhitnik said. “The first one was a couple of years ago in Tampa.”
Many of the players on the Arsenal team are the fellows who skated with Zhitnik as a youngster while he was developing the skills to become an NHL star and that bond they formed then didn’t waver.
He never lost touch with his friends, and the gleam in Zhitnik’s eyes as he talks about being back at the rink and skating alongside them is apparent.
He’s gone from skating with the best in the world to skating with his best buddies once again.
“It’s fun,” Zhitnik said. “We played together. Some guys I grew up with from five years old.
“Some guys I know from 20, 25 years ago and we’d still keep in touch every summer (while he was playing in the NHL).
“We kind of tried to get everybody together. I know it’s a tough life and you can’t be there all the time, but we try our best.”
Zhitnik is one of a number of former NHL players from Russia and the surrounding countries who have journeyed to Windsor to participate in the CARHA tournament. Andrei Kovalenko, who played with the Montreal Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques, plays for the Russian club Grad in the 45-over division, as does former Habs defenceman Vladimir Malakhov.
Old-timers hockey is booming in Russia. This season, Hall of Famer Pavel Bure launched the World Legends Hockey League, which pitted former national team stars of the top hockey-playing European nations against each other.
Kovalenko and Malakhov played for the Russian team, as did Andrei Malkov, who is in Windsor tending goal for Torpedo in the same 35over division as Zhitnik.
“Hockey is our first sport,” Zhitnik said. “Soccer could come close, but hockey is the most popular.”
Though he grew up on the larger ice surfaces, Zhitnik has grown fond of the smaller North American rink they are utilizing in Windsor, not so much because he played on them in the NHL for 15 years, but more so because of the passage of time.
“I prefer small, because I can play much longer,” he said with a laugh. With that, it was time to go. “I can’t miss my bus,” Zhitnik said. He flung his hockey bag over his shoulder and was on his way.
That’s another thing about recreational hockey — even former NHLers carry their gear to the rink.