COLUMBUS, OHIO – Ruslan Fedotenko, the two-time Stanley Cup winner attempting to make an NHL comeback with the Wild, got out of Ukraine in the nick of time.
As things heated up in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, the Kiev native, who had just completed a season playing for HC Donbass in the Kontinental Hockey League, began to witness pro-Russia rebels taking over buildings in Donetsk.
His wife, Debbie, flew back to the United States while Fedotenko hurried to pack their belongings. A few days after Fedotenko left, the airport was attacked and taken over by militants.
“Basically, I left just in time to get out of there,” Fedotenko said.
Fedotenko left in May 2014. In the months after, thousands were killed; a Malaysia Airlines jet carrying 295 people was shot down by a surface-to-air missile; the arena where Fedotenko had played was ransacked; looted and set on fire; and the franchise he played for suspended operations.
“It’s a mess,” Fedotenko said. “In Donetsk, there’s still areas you cannot get into.”
Thousands of miles back to safety, Fedotenko, 36, is trying to continue a successful NHL career that saw him last play for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2013. Last year, after not being able to continue his three-year contract in Donetsk, Fedotenko tried out for the New Jersey Devils.
A veteran of 863 regular-season games, 108 playoff games and an integral member to championship teams with Tampa Bay in 2004 and Pittsburgh in 2009, Fedotenko didn’t make the team. He returned home to Tampa, where he trained and skated in hopes of an opportunity coming.
It never did, so in January he went to play for the Iowa Wild, Minnesota’s American Hockey League affiliate. The goal was for him to show other teams he could still play so he could sign somewhere before the trade deadline.
Fedotenko has ties to Iowa. He played junior hockey in Sioux City, where he met his wife and now-stepchildren. He has ties to the Wild, too. Coach Mike Yeo was Dan Bylsma’s assistant in Pittsburgh when Fedotenko played there, and Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher was Penguins assistant GM.
But on the first shift of Fedotenko’s second game with Iowa, he took an elbow to the chin and was concussed. It set him back three weeks, and no NHL team called.
Fedotenko signed a two-way deal with the Wild this offseason. He played his second exhibition game Thursday night at Columbus and hopes to make the team. It will be tough, though, so his plan would be to play for Iowa and hope for a call-up.
“It’s been a good summer just trying to get my body in really, really good shape,” Fedotenko said. “The league has changed. Teams have gone young, young, young, but I still believe I can bring something to the team with experience.”
He added with a laugh: “I still can give some of these young guys a run for their money. I still feel I can play and I can help, so that’s why I’m doing this.”
Fedotenko has scored 173 career goals, but it’s the playoffs where he has proven his worth. In 2004, he tied with teammate Brad Richards for second in the NHL with 12 playoff goals. Fedotenko scored both goals in Tampa Bay’s Game 7, 2-1 Stanley Cup-clinching win over Calgary. In 2009, he scored seven goals and 14 points in 24 games for the Cup-winning Penguins.
“He scored some huge goals for us,” said Bylsma, now the Buffalo Sabres coach. “He really was the steady presence on that line with [Evgeni] Malkin and [Petr] Sykora. The thing I’ll always remember is we defined how we wanted to play and how we could play, and he did it the best. We called it ‘Ruslan Fedotenko hockey.’ I really hope he does well and makes the Wild.”
Fedotenko would give anything for one more shot at the Stanley Cup.
“When I was a little kid, I didn’t even know what the Stanley Cup was,” he said, laughing. “But when you play hockey so long, you learn how great this league is and how prestigious and how hard it is to win the ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup.
“To be part of it not once but twice, I mean, I’m pretty lucky, pretty privileged to have my name on the Cup and be a big part of it in both places. But I feel like I’m not done yet. I’m healthy. I feel young. And I feel I can easily keep up with the young guys.”