By Gare Joyce in Tillsonburg and Toronto, ON
By Gare Joyce in Tillsonburg and Toronto, ON
At 15, Ivan Bondarenko boarded a one-way flight from Russia to follow his hockey dream. It didn’t quite work out as planned. Six years and five leagues later, this is his story.

Dvadtsat’ chetyre chasa,” the father said.
Translation: 24 hours.
There was no deliberation, no negotiation.
There were only 24 hours.
That was all the time the father was giving his son to make a decision.
“Ostat’sya ili uyti,” the father said.
Translation: Stay or go.
The son was a 15-year-old who at five-foot-seven and maybe 138 pounds could have passed for 12.
The son was on the clock.
He wasn’t being kicked out of the house, not really.
The father was giving him a figurative kick.
The father wanted to know what his son was going to do with the balance of his youth, what his son wanted to do for the rest of his teens and beyond.

There were no shades of grey.
There were just two options.
Stay: You’re going to school in Moscow.
Go: You’re going to play hockey half a world away.
The son could sleep on it.
The son thought he knew his answer the moment his father threw out the deadline.
The son waited until the next morning to tell him.
“YA idu,” Ivan Bondarenko told his father.
Translation: I’ll go.
His father nodded, made a couple of phone calls, pulled out a laptop, went online and bought his son a plane ticket to Denver.
It was done in an hour.
Ivan Bondarenko texted friends and then packed his bags.

I’ve always wondered about the hard choices teenagers have to make to further their hockey careers. Usually the decisions are made behind the scenes, almost always quietly, even with the most touted 16-year-olds heading off to junior hockey. Teams will pitch their programs, talking to players, to parents — to agents, too, in a lot of cases. Terms are put down on paper and deals signed; other matters are sealed only with handshakes. It’s all done discreetly. It’s a hype-free exercise, a stark contrast to the loud, theatrical press conferences of National Signing Day for U.S. college football and hoops.

I’ve also wondered about European kids who come over to North America to pursue their careers. They’re arriving in ever greater numbers; though the CHL still allows teams to dress only two imports, Europeans have been landing in Tier II, in the USHL, in U.S. prep schools and in all manner of hockey academies. It used to be just Eastern European teens who came over to play major junior — until 10 years ago the Swedes, Finns and Swiss tended to stay home to play their junior-aged hockey — but no longer. Now they’re coming over in waves and you have to imagine that their decisions are a lot harder than those of Canadian or American kids looking to play junior. Apart from the very best, the top picks in the CHL Import Draft, can they really have any idea exactly what they’re getting into and signing up for?

In 19 games this season, Bondarenko has put up 47 goals and 86 points, top-10 in GMHL scoring despite not playing since November.

Back in the fall, I saw a news item in a small-town paper. It said that in the first three games of the Tillsonburg Hurricanes’ season, a 21-year-old Russian kid named Ivan Bondarenko had racked up 23 points. Yeah, European kids are parachuting into rinks across North America, but how the hell does a kid from Moscow wind up in the Greater Metro Hockey League, a 22-team rogue op in the junior-hockey world that’s a pay-for-play outfit not recognized by Hockey Canada? And how does he wind up in Tillsonburg, a farming community of 15,000 in southwestern Ontario, and on a team that features not just another Russian kid but also teenagers from Sweden, France, and Spain?

It turns out that he had not only crossed the Atlantic in search of a hockey career but also criss-crossed the North American continent looking for a chance to raise his game and become a pro. His decisions were as extreme as they come and everything was left to chance. That, I eventually found out, suits Ivan Bondarenko just fine.

Fresh off a lifting session in the gym, still in his sweats, his short, blond hair still wet, Bondarenko sat in the coach’s office at the arena in Tillsonburg. He owned something akin to Resting Mischief Face, like he would rattle the lid of the cookie jar to get his mother’s attention just before he dipped his hand in it, and looked no older than some of the bantam kids who waited for the Zamboni to flood the rink. He was bantering in Russian to a tall, still jet-lagged kid, Dmitri Selyutin, who had been suspended from playing in the junior league back home.

I knew and could understand how Selyutin wound up in Tillsonburg. For him it was exile: Early in the season he and six teammates on his Moscow junior team tested positive for a banned PED. They maintained it had been administered by the team doctor without their knowledge. Pending an investigation and an appeal, Sekyutin was looking at a full year on the sidelines in Russia, reason enough to book a ticket and sign on with the Hurricanes — there just weren’t other options available to him.

“I remember their kids had chocolate bananas, and they beat us like we never had been beat before.”

I didn’t know Bondarenko’s backstory beyond the fact that he had bounced around U.S. junior leagues. But I didn’t imagine that he came to North America with a five-year plan that would take him to Tillsonburg. I asked how his day was going, small talk, while I set up to record him and take notes. I braced myself for an English-as-a-second-language interview, full of starts-and-stops and hesitations and explanations and shrugs. And then the floodgates opened: “The brothers I billet with were out in the morning so I got up and made cereal and then I met the guys because we just got Dmitri, so I’ve got to introduce him to the guys and show him around because he doesn’t speak a word of English, you know, and we have a game tomorrow night and he’ll just have one practice with that.”

I dropped my pen. Here was a kid who could take a question and skip in three different directions with it. No way I could keep up. I put my faith in the recorder. The battery icon showed 50 per cent.

“How did you get here?” I asked.

“One thing goes to the other,” he said.

The Bondarenkos lived pretty comfortably in Moscow, the inner ring, a 30-minute walk to Red Square. Ivan’s father, Sergey, is a coach with CSKA, overseeing the peewee and midget teams. His mother, Tatiana, is a lawyer. His older brother, Victor, is heading to university, heading into law and casting a bit of a shadow on Ivan. “My brother is a genius, so that’s hard for me,” he said.

Ivan couldn’t compete with Victor in academics, so he signed up with CSKA’s youth hockey program and was by his account pretty representative of his peer group. “You know I am like a lot of kids: my favorite Pavel Datsyuk and my team the Detroit Red Wings … I am young but I know all about the Russian Five, Igor Larionov, ‘The Professor’ … I know his brother … and one day they are shooting a movie at our arena in Moscow and it’s with Jaromir Jagr, and so I am just a kid on the ice with him and I get a stick and a picture with him.”

In bantam, though, it went sideways for Bondarenko. It wasn’t that he bumped up against the ceiling of his ability, the usual scenario. No, he started to drift because success led to complacency. “We had such a strong team, the strongest in Triple A,” he said.

It’s easy to see why. The CSKA team featured a bunch of names in the ’97 birth year class, the 2015 NHL Draft: Ivan Provorov, who’s an emerging star on the Philadelphia Flyers blue line; Dennis Yan, a third-round draft pick of Tampa Bay who scored 46 goals his one season in the QMJHL; Denis Smirnov, a sixth-round draft pick of Colorado who’s playing at Penn State; and Nikita Koroseltsev, a seventh-rounder of the Maple Leafs who played five seasons in the OHL and is with Columbus’s AHL affiliate in Cleveland. “When I didn’t play well, I told my father, ‘It’s too easy with this team,” Bondarenko said.

Selyutin joined Tillsonburg after being banned from his Russian league. He is averaging 4.52 points per (official) game.

That answer didn’t satisfy Sergey — those who know the family suggest he was a hard-ass with his younger son. He made sure it wouldn’t stay “too easy” by getting Ivan transferred from CSKA. “I went from the strongest team in Triple A to the worst one in Double A … going from a team that wins 10–1 every night to one that loses 10–1 every night,” Bondarenko said.

Going to the Double A doormat was like banishment, but that wasn’t the worst of it for Ivan. No, the worst of it was getting left behind. “The best players all went to the States and Canada — by themselves like Provorov and Smirnov, or with their families like Yan and Koroseltsev — all before they’re even junior age, because of corruption.”

The implication: Even a future NHL top-10 draft pick can’t count on getting a fair shake if he stays at home. “For sure, it’s hard for them and it costs money to go to Canada, like Koroseltsov, to play as a little kid in Toronto … [like] Provorov who goes to the USHL when he’s 14, 15.”

Bondarenko wanted to go to the U.S. too, but not because of the others who went before him. He had made one trip out of Russia, to Chicago, with his Triple A team for a peewee tournament. “The two things I remember … the first, staying with billets and their kids had chocolate bananas frozen and I loved that … the second was playing this team from Detroit, don’t know if it was Little Caesars or another, but they beat us real bad, like we never had been beat before, ever.”

And so, the conversation, brief and to the point, between the father and son. Then the purchase of a plane ticket.

Consider how we make our life decisions. Not the randomness of it all, but rather the quirks that come into play. Here is a young man whose commitment to the game was questioned by his father — or, at the very least, challenged — and whose decision to move thousands of kilometres from home was influenced by chocolate-covered bananas.

Let’s also consider that even certainties in hockey are never so certain as they seem. I remember talking to Alexander Mogilny once. He told me that he was 11 or 12 years old when he was spotted by someone from the Red Army’s hockey program and given a train ticket from Khabarovsk, his hometown on the Chinese border, to Moscow — a distance of more than 8,000 kilometres. Mogilny said he was told that someone would be at the Moscow station waiting for him, and so he set out alone on a train ride that lasted the better part of week. When he arrived in Moscow, no one was there to meet him. When somehow he made his way to the Red Army’s offices, no one knew he was coming or had ever heard of him.

So a 16-year-old flies one-way from Moscow to Denver with not even a contact on the ground, just a spot in a showcase. Well, others have made leaps of faith and not even known.

Bondarenko was skating in a showcase in Denver. He had been in the U.S. only a couple of days. A coach came up to him after the session and handed him a card. The coach started to talk, but Bondarenko made hand signals, got across he didn’t speak English. They went to Google Translate. The coach, it turned out, wanted him to play for his team in Washington. Bondarenko thought: The White House. Cut to a couple of days later, and after a phone call with his mother who begged him to come home, Bondarenko got off a flight in Bremerton. He was in the state of Washington, a city home to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyards.

He went straight from the airport with his suitcase to the rink. He checked in with the West Sound Warriors in the Northern Pacific Hockey League — Junior B Lite on the sliding scale. In the dressing room, the players taught him a word. They made him repeat it, then pointed him to the coach and he repeated it to the coach. It’s an epithet that can’t be printed here. The coach bag-skated the team for more than an hour. Bondarenko had no idea it was a punishment, he thought it was business as usual.

He was 16 skating against players up to 19 and 20 years old. “First game with the Warriors, first game on a small rink since that peewee tournament in Chicago, I went to get the puck along the boards and I thought, ‘OK, I have time to turn and look,’ and all of a sudden a guy is on top of me like never had before and I’m thinking, ‘What is this? There’s no room here.’”

“I can’t just stay in my room like it’s a jail. I’m going to have to meet people and learn the language.”

He struggled the first few weeks, the only import on a team mostly made up of kids from the Northwest U.S. And he almost broke right there. “I’m living with a Russian family there but I am alone. I didn’t know anything, maybe I could make Mr. Noodle but that was it, sort of helpless. After a month I called home and said that I wanted to come home … ‘It’s not what I thought,’ … and my father said, ‘OK, but if you do I don’t want to hear about hockey again, so think it over.’ And I did … I decided to give it a bit more time and I decided that I can’t just stay in my room like it’s a jail and just leave it to play … that I’m going to have to meet people and learn the language if I’m going to make this work.”

And he made it work, finishing the season with the team. He played 37 games, racked up 50 goals and 101 points, and built his vocabulary at an even faster pace than his scoring. “I just said, ‘Hey, how you doin’?’ and maybe I don’t understand the answer but I picked up another phrase every day.”

He stayed on in Bremerton for a second season, still billeting, still depending on the kindness of others, but moving up to play for the Wenatchee Wild in the North American Hockey League — say, lo-cal caffeine-free Junior A. This time he wasn’t the only import; there was a kid from Minsk, another from Bratislava and another from Stockholm. They each arrived and lasted a week or two. There were like nine players from Canada and the U.S. who played 10 or fewer games. A Danish kid lasted the season and played one more in the NAHL, in Witchita Falls, before heading home.

It seemed fitting that teenagers in Bremerton would be ships passing in the night, and it seemed most likely that the youngest, the one furthest out of his element, wouldn’t stick it out. “I didn’t know that there were so many European players here but you know there was a whole lot of things that I didn’t know about hockey in the U.S. and Canada … the draft … Canadian junior … USHL … leagues out there that I didn’t know about … don’t know anything.”

What he learned: A few of his American and Canadian teammates on the Wenatchee Wild were banking on getting scholarships to NCAA D-1 schools. After a couple more years of development, they made the grade. This became the path that Bondarenko saw for himself. “It’s what my parents wanted because you don’t know if hockey as a profession is going to work out,” he said.

Neither the West Sound Warriors nor the Wenatchee Wild will retire Ivan Bondarenko’s number or honour him if he ever makes the Show because both teams ceased operations after his last game with them. At this level, it seems, the teams are as ephemeral as the players are portable. In search of a better opportunity and sunlight, Bondarenko landed with the Aspen Leafs, a Junior A club affiliated with a hockey academy that played in the Rocky Mountain Hockey League, but he left in mid-season. The program was shuttered later on — maybe he could sense it coming.

Looking for a fourth team in a fourth league in his third year in the U.S., hoping against hope for a place he might settle down and focus on growing his game, Bondarenko wound up with the Oklahoma City Junior A Blazers of the Western States Hockey League in January 2016. The league has been around since 1993 and these days has 23 teams in nine states and two Canadian provinces. Over a season on the bus, you’d get to see a good chunk of the continent, with squads from San Diego to Saskatchewan, Seattle to El Paso.

While Bondarenko had been an underage hockey vagabond in the U.S. to that point, he was able to put down at least shallow roots in Oklahoma City. “I saw some video of him and had a pretty good idea that he could play for us, but he became a lot more than just a player,” says Gord Bell, who owned and coached the Blazers that season. “Beyond the skill, which he has an awful lot of, he was a leader. We had a bunch of Euros who didn’t speak English and with the American kids, it was a struggle to get a good culture in the dressing room, but he was the key guy for that. He became a friend of the family — he’s like an uncle to my daughter. After that season, I took him to a hockey camp I run in West Block, Alberta, and he’s gone there every summer — he’s like a legend in that town. To the kids, he’s like the mayor for as long as the camp runs.”

"A chance to see so much"
Bondarenko has no regrets with his decision to see North America on skates.

Bondarenko not only finished the season with Oklahoma City but stuck around two more. By now you get a sense of the whirlwind — teams that don’t exist anymore, regional leagues that even devout hockey fans don’t track. The Blazers were a relatively new club, but they offered more stability than the other programs. Founded by Bell in 2014, they were a popular landing spot for European players trying to earn rides to NCAA schools — in Bondarenko’s first full season in Oklahoma City, 14 other European teens were in the lineup at one point or another. In fact, eight of the top 10 scorers were imports. “The one thing about working [with the Europeans] is that they’re coachable, especially the Russians,” says Gary Gill, who bought the team from Bell and coached Bondarenko in his final season there. “Where they came from, if you don’t listen to the coach, then you don’t play. And the fact is, they’re motivated — they came all this way and paid to do that, so they’re not here to fool around.”

Their hopes of advancing their stock might not be well-founded — none of the 14 seem to have landed scholarships and the best of them are playing in the low minor-pro leagues in Europe, if they’re playing at all. Bondarenko, though, was in another class, with 61 goals and 126 points in 49 games, fifth in the league in scoring for the 2017–18 season. He wasn’t inundated with offers but he did get one from a Division 1 school, Alabama-Huntsville.

“I loved Oklahoma City,” Bondarenko said, pulling out his phone and flipping through his Facebook account. “They had a rule that you had to go to school there and so they put me in a high school where they had a class for English as a second language … but they put me in just a regular class and I had to learn English as I went … doing four years of classes in two years.”

I told him that the Blazers’ Gary Gill called him “battle-tested.” I told him that the coach said he “respected him for the way that he defended himself and always turned bad situations into good ones.”

Bondarenko finally found the photo on Facebook and showed me the screen: Ivan Bondarenko, cap and gown, Edmond Memorial High School class of ’16. There wouldn’t ever be a photo from a commencement at Alabama-Huntsville, though. “It was great to meet so many people and learn the language, and going to college is what my parents really wanted, my mother really wanted, but high school wasn’t enough to go to Huntsville because every time I’m writing the ACT I’m getting 18, 19 or something and I needed 21 to be qualified and no matter how much I tried, and so there’s no Huntsville so I needed someplace to go.”

I told Bondarenko that Gill thought he should have gone to the Federal Hockey League or the Southern Professional Hockey League, pro circuits below the East Coast Hockey League.
“I think I need some place to play and develop and get stronger,” he said, “and so that’s how I wound up here.”

And now it’s the Greater Metro Hockey League, which plays out in small towns like Tillsonburg and in neighbourhood arenas in cities including Toronto, London and Windsor. It’s a pay-for-play junior league, players coughing up $5,000 to $10,000 for a spot on the roster. The Hurricanes are a three-year-old franchise; the league has been around since 2006 and is not recognized by Hockey Canada. Anyone who steps on the ice in the GMHL becomes ineligible to play in the CHL (as well as any Hockey Canada-sanctioned event), but really that’s pretty much a moot point. From the few games I saw, Bondarenko and his buddy, Dmitri Selyutin, would be the only ones who could keep up and at this point they’d be ineligible by virtue of age. The Hurricanes coach, Jason Dopaco, told me that he has talked to ECHL teams on Bondarenko’s behalf. “If we lose him [to the ECHL] it would be tough for us, but we’re about development here and Ivan’s developing, working out every day.”

I took in a game against London in Tillsonburg on a Friday night in November, the front-end of a home-and-home — or, at least, what I thought was a game. I kept track as best I could: Selyutin, who had arrived from Moscow 24 hours earlier and had yet to skate in a practice in North America, was credited with six goals; and Bondarenko had a pair and five assists. The final, 10–1, wasn’t much for the Hurricanes: They had beaten London 24–0 in the season opener. And, ultimately, it wasn’t a game at all: London filed a protest with the league after the Friday loss and another shellacking on Saturday. The GMHL president voided both games, ruling that the Hurricanes had used a total of 15 20- and 21-year-old players, one more than the league rules allow. The games went into the record as London 3, Tillsonburg 0. So when you look at the Dmitri’s numbers through early February — 67 goals in 24 games — please consider that he put the puck in the net 12 more times than that.

"They’re coachable, especially the Russians"
North American leagues are seeing an influx of Europeans hoping to impress NCAA and pro teams.

After the London “games,” Bondarenko unpacked his season with Tillsonburg, which had been a weird one, even by the standards of the GMHL and other junior leagues that play out below the public’s radar. The Hurricanes were the league’s black hats, rebels and bad-asses in the fashion of Al Davis’s Raiders, the clerical slip-up on the forfeits versus London, notwithstanding. And Tillsonburg owned the second-best record in the southern division through the first three months, behind only the St. George Ravens. What you get in the GMJHL are only occasionally beautiful moments in only occasionally competitive games. Everything you learn from — the good, the bad,” Bondarenko says. “Sometimes early in the season we had a short bench, 12 skaters, and I play 40 minutes or maybe more and after my arms and legs are spaghetti … and sometimes games are like this, so you don’t know.”

I didn’t want to be pessimistic but I had to ask him: “What if this is all there is?”

I thought he might take offence. Not even close. “I’ve had a chance to play the game I love. I’ve had a chance to see so much,” he said.

Included in that “so much” would be a military shipyard in Bremerton, the snowcapped peaks in Aspen and horse-drawn carriages on the roads outside Tillsonburg.“I’ve learned another language and graduated from a high school, I met my girlfriend — I’ll have no regrets, no matter what’s next,” he said.

I can guarantee he had no idea what was going to come next. And that, as always, suited Bondarenko just fine.

In November, I went to see the Hurricanes play a game against a team out by York University in Toronto. When the team got off the bus, Bondarenko was on crutches. He had suffered a broken ankle the night before in a game against the Niagara Whalers in Tillsonburg. He had a date with an orthopaedic surgeon on Monday. For the moment, ankle and foot were too swollen to get fitted into more than a temporary cast.

The Hurricanes had been up 9–1 against Niagara in the third. Dmitri Selyutin had three goals and two assists; Bondarenko a pair and three apples. The Whalers weren’t happy and went after the Russians — slashes to spears to a slew foot away from the puck and ultimately for Bondarenko, a charge, a deliberate attempt to injure, while a skate got stuck in a rut. “No penalty, no video, no suspension,” he said.

He hobbled up the steps and parked in the seats. “I sit here until February. Back for the playoffs, I hope.” So there would be no ECHL or even hopes thereof this season. He smiled anyway. He told me that he was going to make the best of his time out of the lineup, that he was going to see the girl he met in Oklahoma City, that he was going to stay with her family. “She thought I was an asshole when I met her last winter,” he explained.

In early February, Ivan Bondarenko put on skates for the first time in two months. He still has screws and a metal plate in his ankle and no guarantee that he’ll be back for the playoffs. The first round opens this month, but that seems a long shot; he has a much better chance of getting back in a later round, pointing to a a match-up in the South Division final against St. George, who are on a 29-game win streak at this printing. Still, maybe his season ended in Niagara. Maybe. His story doesn’t, though, not even if he can’t line up a spot in the Federal Hockey League, not even if he can’t get a tryout with the Southern Professional League. He won’t be going back to Moscow with nothing to show for his time in North America. If he’s going back at all, it will be to visit.

Tatiana Bondarenko’s cellphone rang.
Her son.
It was late.
Not normal.
He’d put off the call for days.
He had to work up the nerve.
“Mother, I got married.”
“What? Who?”
“A girl I met in Oklahoma.”
“You’re in Oklahoma?”
“No, I’m in Dallas, Texas.”
“You got married and you didn’t tell us?”
“And we’re having a baby.”
That was Tatiana waking up her husband.
“Talk to him,” she told Sergey, whose eyes were barely open.

Ivan and Katie Bondarenko tied the knot in January. Their story continues.

“Chto eto?”
“What is it”
The son talked.
Of course the son talked.
About the girl, now his wife, soon to be a mother, Katie McGhee-Bondarenko.
Maybe the only hairdresser in Dallas doing a Russian Rosetta Stone course.
Sergey talked to his son and handed the phone back to Tatiana.
Sergey went back to sleep.
Tatiana talked to Ivan for an hour.
She calmed down but was up until morning.
Sergey woke up hours later.
“Eto byl son, kotoryy zval Ivan?” he said.
“Was that a dream that Ivan called?”

Edited and designed by Evan Rosser

Photo Credits

Paul Bolasco; Kim M Photography - Kimberly Medica; Paul Bolasco; Paul Bolasco; Kim M Photography - Kimberly Medica; Jessica Power Photography.