From Ukraine to Denmark: reunited at last

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Note: This story originally appeared in The Hockey News’ Preview of the playoffs publish.

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 the Danish elite Metal Ligaen. For nearly a decade, Hansen has followed his top-ranked side to games across the Nordic country.

Still, with all those hours of travel under his belt, he couldn’t have been prepared for the trip he would make at the end of February 2022, to the border of Ukraine and Poland with one of his players. . It might be the most important road trip of his life.

The Aalborg Pirates, founded in their current form in 2012, have enjoyed great success in recent years. This was partly thanks to the acquisition of Russian winger Kirill Kabanov ahead of the 2017-18 season. After playing at the U-18 World Championship in 2009, Kabanov left Russia for Canada to play for the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL.

The New York Islanders then chose him in the third round of the 2010 draft. After a few seasons in the AHL, ECHL, Swedish League and KHL, Kabanov went to Aalborg, where he became an avid player, team leader and fan favourite.

In that first season with the Pirates, Kabanov helped the team win their first Metal Ligaen championship after holding first place for the entire season. Since then, apart from a season-long stint in the German DEL the following year, Kabanov has remained in Aalborg, with his family: Ukrainian model Viktoriya Kuropyatnikova, and their two young sons, now aged four and six.

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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 Ukraine in February, Kuropyatnikova and the couple’s sons were there. Kabanov was in Aalborg.

In the early days of the war in Ukraine, Kabanov was confident that his family would stay safe where they were. “Nobody expected this to happen,” Hansen said.

Despite everything, the owner tried to convince his player that it was time to get his family out, before things got worse.

And then it’s done, quickly. “It was February 28, the fifth day of war,” Kuropyatnikova said. “Our city was bombarded non-stop. Downtown, where we live, there were missiles within walking distance of our building. We slept in a bomb shelter.

For Kabanov and Kuropyatnikova, the decision to move was made quickly. With just one small bag, Kuropyatnikova, their children and her mother fled, leaving behind not only all of their belongings, but also her father, in accordance with Ukrainian martial law.

To get to the Polish border, Kuropyatnikova and the family had to travel first by car, then by bus, for two agonizing days through the war-torn country. To meet them, Hansen and Kabanov borrowed a seven-seater vehicle from a friend and drove 1,000 miles through Denmark, Germany and Poland for 14 straight hours, stopping only to refuel. . “I had never been to Poland before,” Hansen said.

But when the men arrive at the small border post, Kuropyatnikova and her family cannot be found. It was very cold there, Hansen described, as they searched for them for an hour. It turns out the family had to make the last trip across the line on foot; finally they appeared. “I was able to kiss Kirill on March 2 at 5 a.m.,” Kuropyatnikova said. “It was very emotional, with hugs and tears.”

But before turning around and setting off on the long journey back to Aalborg, Hansen said: “Vika saw a lady, and she was alone.” The woman needed a ride to meet people she knew in Poland. So the group took her away. After dropping off the only refugee, the rest of the journey was difficult. The group was exhausted and had to stop for short breaks at hotels along the way. But relief and gratitude guided them through these final stages. “I can’t help but be grateful to Steen for walking miles and miles with Kirill,” Kuropyatnikova said. “It means so much to us and shows how much he cares about Kirill, not only on the hockey level but also off the ice.”

Hansen was happy to help his player and friend. “I’ve known him for a long time,” he said. “I had the chance to help him, so I did.”

And when the band finally arrived in Aalborg? “It was so special,” Hansen said. “When he saw Aalborg, Kirill felt at home. He collapsed. They were safe.

When war first broke out between two countries he loves so much, Kabanov could not continue playing hockey. The stress was too much for the veteran player, who missed five games. But once he was able to return to Aalborg, with his family safe and sound, he returned to the ice. “I’m glad Kirill had time to reflect,” Kuropyatnikova said. “It’s very important to have an understanding team.”

And fans, she says, have also rallied behind the family.

As for the team owner who insisted on personally driving his player to the brink of war to save his family, Hansen has remained relatively quiet about his role, avoiding much credit. “There’s only one hero in this game here,” Hansen said, “and that’s Vika. She’s so strong.

The Pirates, meanwhile, finished first overall and were due to play the final after a pair of series sweeps. “Kirill looks good,” Hansen said. “It’s good for him to play.”


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