S ergei Varlamov has lost count of the days since he kissed his wife and kids and waved as the train pulled away. There’s no knowing how long it will be until he sees them again. When he looks at the framed photos on the living-room mantle he gets choked up.
“Of course, I want to be with them, but I felt that I had to stay here,” he says.
His wife and their three teenage kids are now in a smaller city in western Ukraine, staying with his in-laws. “Less hot there,” he explains, although of course that’s no reflection on the weather. It’s just a place less threatened than their hometown, Kyiv.
Since his family left, Russian forces advanced to within 15 miles of Kyiv’s city centre and rained artillery on not only strategic targets but also on Freedom Square, the opera house and high-rise residential buildings, as if to maximize the terror of those who have stayed behind. Though the Russians have retreated in recent days, every day seems the same for Varlamov: at once dread-filled and banal. “We’re on the left bank of the Dneiper and so far the neighbourhood looks the same,” he says. “The Russians haven’t hit us here. Still, the government asks us not to leave our homes even if it’s quiet and it has been quiet.”
The Varlamovs’ home is quiet but not silent. Voices echo in the living room. Sergei spends hours each day online, talking to his wife and kids. He checks in with his mother — he prefers not to mention exactly where she is. It’s hard to go see any friends who have stayed behind, with traffic slowed to a crawl by checkpoints and half the bridges closed to allow the military to move around the city as quickly as possible. He hears from friends in the Ukrainian pro-hockey league, where he served as an executive until the country went into lockdown. He hears from friends he has made around the world, those he met during his peripatetic playing career. From the junior ranks on he played for 14 teams in five countries: Canada, the U.S., Russia, Belarus and, at the very end, Ukraine. Maybe, given that he played nine years of his career in the KHL, it’s no surprise that many of the former teammates he’s hearing from are Russians.
“Every day I am on my phone or computer to them,” he says. “They ask me if I’m okay and I tell them that I am. And they tell me what they hear on the news — the Russian news, the government news.”
The talking points of Russian propagandists have become familiar by now: That the Ukrainian government are Nazis. That the Ukrainian tyrants are bombing their own cities into submission. That the Russians are peacekeepers. That the Russian soldiers are welcomed by Ukrainians in the streets. That there is no resistance, no Russian casualties. That this is the liberation of Ukraine.
“I tell my Russian friends, ‘This isn’t reality.’ Then I send them YouTube videos and news reports,” he says. “Hospitals bombed. Missiles hitting apartment buildings. Civilian deaths. And I send them the reports of the Russian forces not coming forward. Trying to starve people. Not letting them have water.”
He thinks he’s convincing them. Many have gone around the world in their careers too and are aware of life beyond state messaging.
“No, they want to know what is really happening,” Varlamov says. “I think they trust me when I tell them this is my life now, our lives in Kyiv. I hope they respect that I’m staying behind.”
For Sergei Varlamov, staying behind was a choice. In fact, he didn’t avail himself of an exemption offered to all Ukrainian men. “Men between the ages of 18 to 60 had to stay here but they made an exception for anyone who has three children 18 years and younger,” he says. “I qualified for that but I thought [staying] was the right thing to do. My older brother lives in Italy and when [the war] started, he came home, because it was the right thing to do. I have friends, neighbours, who have joined the forces. … This is the time when we have to put other things aside for our country and ask no questions.”
News reports from Ukraine have featured famous athletes who came to the country’s defence. The Klitschko brothers, the former world heavyweight boxing champions, have been the most prominent: Vitali, the mayor of Kyiv, and Wladimir, who is on the front lines with the Kyiv Territorial Brigade, project an image of hard-earned toughness without the sacrifice of intellect. Likewise, the story of Sergiy Stakhovsky has attracted attention. Previously he had been known only as the unheralded underdog, then No. 116 in the world, who upset Roger Federer in the second round at Wimbledon in 2013. But in March, a little more than a month after he retired from tennis at the Australian Open, the 36-year-old Stakhovsky returned to Ukraine to volunteer for the military and is currently on patrol in the streets of Kyiv. His story has inspired Federer and Novak Djokovic to generously support and fundraise for displaced Ukrainians.
Sergei Varlamov’s story isn’t like the Klitschkos’ or Stakhovsky’s. He had neither a famous career nor even a moment in the sun. Unlike them, he’s not a political force, nor an influencer, nor a soldier on the front lines — though a yet can be attached to the last one. He was a working professional athlete, not a member of the elite — the pro next door. And right now, he’s waiting on a call and his hope is fading that he won’t be needed. For Sergei Varlamov and thousands, hundreds of thousands, like him, the preservation of country overrides self-preservation, and yet they can only wait alone, locked away in their homes at nightfall, with the lights turned off, an awful tedium broken only by a voice on the phone.
V arlamov makes it clear that his life wasn’t ever hardscrabble, that his family was comfortable during the Soviet era. “Both of my parents had government jobs, so there was stability,” he says. “Not luxury, but always knowing that there’d be a place to live and food to eat.”
He remembers that collapse of the Soviet empire when he was 13, and it was the fracturing of the union of republics that allowed him to pursue his dream of playing professional hockey. Because he grew up in Kyiv, which wasn’t a hockey hotbed, he understood he would have to leave to develop his skills. If he had been from Moscow, he could have signed up with Dynamo’s youth program or something similar, where he’d have the benefit of top coaching and tough competition. If he had stayed in Ukraine, he wouldn’t have grown as a player or, for that fact, ever have been found or even seen. “If it had stayed the Soviet Union, then I wouldn’t have been allowed to leave the country,” he says.
At 16, he left Kyiv and went to western Canada to play Junior A — first in the oil-patch for Fort McMurray and then to Nelson, where lumber mill workers filled the stands. Not cosmopolitan, these were blue-collar towns. “Going to Canada changed me,” he says. “It made me mature. I had to learn English — it was a choice, wherever I’d go I’d always try to learn rather than stay around people who spoke Russian or Ukrainian.”
From there he moved up to the WHL and east to Swift Current, where his commitment to the game and the decision to leave Ukraine paid off. He was on no one’s radar, passing through the NHL draft, but then in the 1997-98 season he scored 66 goals and racked up 119 points for the Broncos and was named the CHL’s player of the year. The Flames signed Varlamov as a free agent and after Swift Current’s season ended, Calgary gave him a game in the lineup before sending him to their AHL affiliate for the playoffs.
That rush to the top of the junior ranks seemed to augur stardom, but Varlamov wound up playing only 63 NHL games spread across four seasons, a couple with the Flames, a couple with St Louis. Despite his audacious season in Swift Current, his ceiling seemed to be the AHL, where he scored at least 20 goals four times. He never signed a million-dollar contract. He rode a lot of buses.
It’s an awful irony now that Varlamov spent the prime seasons of his career with KHL teams in Russia — Novosibirsk, Cherepovets and then briefly Saint Petersburg. When he hit his thirties, he wound up up in Belarus, playing two seasons for Dinamo Minsk. With three young kids — his older daughter starting school — he might have been inclined to walk away from the game but an opportunity came open to play in the KHL without leaving his homeland.
In 2010, Borys Kolesnikov, a Ukrainian industrialist and politician, bought HC Donbass, a franchise based in Donetsk. Donbass played in the Ukrainian national league but Kolesnikov had greater ambitions for the team, namely to become the first club in his country to play in the KHL, the Russian league that has expanded its reach to other European capitals. When Kolesnikov negotiated the team’s entry for the 2012-13 season, Varlamov signed on. At 34, it was a way to end his career that he never had imagined. “Donetsk became a second home to us,” he says. “The owner did everything he could to make it a great experience for the players — great accommodations for the players, great training staff.”
HC Donbass finished out of the playoffs in its inaugural KHL season, but looked like a contender for the Gagarin Cup the following winter. With former NHLer Michael Leighton in net, the team gave up only 99 goals across the 54-game season, a league record. The roster was a pan-European mix, as is standard in the KHL — Finns, Swedes, Czechs, Slovaks and, of course, Russians. It also featured a contingent of Ukrainian players, led by Varlamov and another Kyiv native, Ruslan Fedotenko, a journeyman who played more than 800 NHL games and won Stanley Cups with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins. “The team got very good, very fast,” says Oleksandr Sukmansky, a Ukrainian journalist who covered HC Donbass that season. “They had a great chance to become the first team from outside of Russia to play in the [Gagarin Cup] final. There were plans to build a new arena with 15,000 seats. It looked like the team had a chance to become one of the best [in the KHL] for a few seasons.”
Everything started to come apart for the team in Donetsk during the league’s break for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. After then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided to eschew stronger ties with the European Union and draw closer to the Russian government, protesters ousted him from office in what became known as the Revolution of Dignity. The clash in the streets of Kyiv between protesters and Ukrainian security forces led to more than 100 deaths, before Yanukovych was removed, the constitution and its amendments of 2004 were restored and parliament scheduled an election for May. On February 23, the day of the closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics, pro-Russian counter-protests were staged in the Crimean city of Sevastopol and in other centres in the Donetsk Oblast.
Varlamov had no sense of trouble coming during that Olympic break. “We knew there were talks going on, what they said were peace meetings,” he says. “The meetings were kept secret. There was no aggression, nothing in the streets of Donetsk. Then we heard that the KHL told [HC Donbass management] that we will have to play all our home games in the playoffs in Bratislava, the same arena as the Slovakian team in the league.”
Despite playing their home games in Slovakia, HC Donbass beat Dinamo Riga four games to three in the first round while what seemed like the biggest obstacle to their spring run fell by the wayside — Dynamo Moscow, the league’s strongest team, was upset by Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Donbass set another league record on March 22 in the second game of the conference semi-finals, beating Lev, the KHL’s team in Prague, 4-3 six minutes into the fourth overtime — the longest game in KHL history.
The next day, Russia annexed Crimea. Varlamov heard the news when HC Donbass was heading back to Bratislava for Game 3 in their series. The world was justifiably skeptical about Putin’s rationale for moving troops into the territory in 2014, Varlamov even more so. “It was politics,” Varlamov says. “Putin created the crisis … he made a solution without a problem. There was no crisis. … [The idea] that Russian people were treated badly in Ukraine, it is not true. It has never been true. Putin used language as a way to divide us. It was divide and rule.”
Moving games to a neutral site would have been an unwanted distraction in the playoffs in and of itself, but the entire Donbass lineup had to have been more than unsettled by events on the ground in Donetsk. Likewise, the Russians on the team had to have felt caught in the middle of a political storm. There’s no knowing the degree to which the conflict impacted the team but HC Donbass’s playoff run fell short. Lev won Game 3 in Bratislava in overtime and wound up winning the series in six games, all tightly fought. The Prague team and not HC Donbass went on to become the first non-Russian team in the Gagarin Cup final that year.
When Varlamov returned to Donetsk, he sensed life there had changed for the worse. “When the season ended, things began to escalate,” he says. “At night, we would hear alarms go off in the building where we lived and [agitators] were going around the streets. We got out on the 1st or 2nd of May. We were able to evacuate just before there were shootings in the street, all kinds of violence — right before it was street warfare. After we left, we stayed in touch with people [in Donetsk] and they told us about confrontations with [Russian] forces, full out. There was crime. When people were not at home there would be people breaking in, stealing everything. It became not safe to live there.”
It also became impossible for HC Donbass to play there. Less than two weeks after Varlamov and his family left Donetsk, looters ransacked the arena and set it on fire. The building was declared unsafe and though repairs were planned, the KHL put the franchise on hold. Not long after, the league became an equity partner and all of the owner’s plans for a new arena and the players’ hopes for a KHL powerhouse came apart. As it turned out, the loss in Game 6 to Lev would be the last game HC Donbass played in the KHL.
A brief comeback a couple of years later in the Ukrainian league notwithstanding, Varlamov had played his last meaningful game. “It wasn’t really what happened with [Donbass and the KHL] that made me retire,” he says. “It was injuries and I was in my thirties. It was just time.”
W hen Russian forces were gathering along the Ukrainian border this winter, Varlamov did not foresee the awful events that followed. “I’m an optimist,” he says. “I didn’t see it coming. I thought that it would be posturing, like Russia was going to want something from the U.S. and NATO. [The military build-up] was only going to be the threat of action. I thought that if it was actually more than that, it would be like Donetsk, Crimea, to claim a territory, not to take the whole country — and with innocent people dying, not just the military. I didn’t see that someone like me would be called to defend the nation, but of course now I must. It’s really not a choice. I’m like anyone else. I don’t want to die. But I must serve if it comes to that. This I know.”
He also knows about the outrage in North America, with many demanding that Russian athletes be banished from competition. He knows about the criticism directed at Alexander Ovechkin, who has appeared many times with Vladimir Putin and features a photo with the Russian leader on his Instagram profile. Ovechkin has danced around questions about the war and so far has let the photo with Putin stay in place. To his critics, he seems indifferent to the destruction of the nation and the slaughter of hundreds of innocent citizens. When the Washington Capitals turned away fans who showed up at the arena with Ukrainian flags, they accomplished the impossible in making the optics of the moment worse.
Varlamov is forgiving of Ovechkin. “I wanted to see him break Gretzky’s goal-scoring record, but I can’t expect him to [renounce] Putin and the attack on our country,” he says. “Russian athletes are in an impossible position. Some have said they are against the war but not all can. They have families in Russia. They have homes there. These people may suffer and things [may be] taken if they criticize Putin. They are under threat in some ways like we are.
“I don’t think that Russian athletes should be punished. This is not the war of Russians. This is the war of Putin. Don’t punish [the athletes] for the country where they were born. They have nothing to do with the attack on Ukraine. And do not ask them questions about Putin and the war. These aren’t fair. There are no good answers. I’m not angry at them. I am angry at Putin. People are not dying because Ovechkin is playing hockey. People are dying because of Putin’s orders.”
W hile Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been making his appeals to heads of state in the NATO alliance and challenging the UN to help the Ukrainian cause, the Klitschko brothers have been making the rounds in the Western media to win the hearts and minds of people who couldn’t have previously found Ukraine on a map and to hearten and give a voice to citizens of Kyiv and the rest of their nation.
Vitali, the mayor of Kyiv, said in an interview on CNN: “Ukrainian soldiers destroyed the plans of Russians. We’re ready to fight. We defend our city. Right now, [there are] huge, huge patriotic waves. People who never, ever expect to take weapons in hand — [they are doing this] right now to defend houses, children and our future, future of our country.”
Varlamov is not on the front lines. On many counts, he ranks among the fortunate. His neighbourhood hasn’t been shelled. His water and electricity are still working. There’s a curfew but not quite a lockdown. He can take his dog for a walk in the morning. He can go to the market every two or three days and so far there’s food to be had on the shelves. Because he has a house rather than an apartment, he can go out in his garden. Maybe half the time that he leaves the house, he volunteers in the neighbourhood — maybe to check in on the home of a neighbour who has been called up; maybe to help a senior who needs shopping done or isn’t physically up to household chores.
Maybe it’s straining to draw a sports analogy, but for Sergei Varlamov it’s the longest overtime, neither victory nor defeat, just awful suspense. “I haven’t been called up,” he says. “I would be in the last line [at my age]. Of course, I will go [if called]. It’s what I have to do, my duty.”
With the Russians closing their circle around Kyiv, with every mile they advance, with every missile that strikes the city, the back of the line gets closer to front. Varlamov won’t speculate on when he might be called to serve and pick up arms. He doesn’t believe it’s inevitable. “I am still an optimist,” he says. “I don’t know how this ends peacefully, but it can. I hope there will be a dialogue. I don’t think that it will be nuclear — what will be left? They say that if there’s one war with nuclear bombs then the next war will be fought with sticks.
“What I know is we will not stop fighting here and I will be together with my family. We will rebuild what has been lost in the conflict.”