INTERVIEW: Alexei Ponikarovsky of the Toronto Maple Leafs
by Yarema Belej
NEW YORK - With career bests in all aspects of his game, Kyiv native Alexei Ponikarovsky has blossomed into a top-line winger for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He took some time before his team left Madison Square Garden, after losing to the New York Rangers (5-2) on Saturday, March 18, to give an interview to The Ukrainian Weekly.
"I was 5 years old when I first played hockey back in Kyiv," said Ponikarovsky, relating that his parents pushed him into the sport of hockey because his first love, soccer, was too competitive in the local sport scene.
"I hadn't skated before that time, so I tried it, and I kept going and going," said the big left winger. "... then I moved to Moscow, because hockey in Kyiv was not as big, so I had to make the move to better my chances."
His 6-foot-4, 220 pound frame is one that is becoming typical in the very physical game of hockey. Yet, it is not only Ponikarovsky's size that makes him a great asset for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It is his style of play that has the Kyiv native playing on the top line of one of sport's most storied franchises.
"Strong play, the forecheck and my play down low [are what allow me] to score goals," said Ponikarovsky of his style. Since most of his goals come by way of his hustle and fighting through the opposition, it has become clear that he has to play hard to have an impact.
During the 2003-2004 season, his first full season with the Leafs, Ponikarovsky played in 73 games, scoring nine goals and adding 19 assists. This year he has solidified himself as a real NHLer with 21 goals and 17 assists in 81 games.
Along with a few other NHL players, Ponikarovsky was a member of the 2002 Ukrainian Olympic Team in Salt Lake City, Utah. "We had a good bunch of guys there ... It was a great experience to be a part of," he said. "We had a chance to go to the main event but Belarus beat us." Without any hesitation he declared that he would love to play for Ukraine in future Olympic tournaments if the opportunity were to present itself.
It was a fellow member of that Olympic team that brought hockey's greatest treasure back to Ukraine in the summer of 2004. Ruslan Fedotenko of the Tampa Bay Lightning had the opportunity to bring back the Stanley Cup, the championship trophy of the NHL, to the streets of Kyiv. Ponikarovsky laughed when asked if he would do the same (probably because his team at the time of the interview was out of the playoff picture). "For sure, it is something everyone dreams of ... if Toronto ever wins the cup I would bring it back home so my parents and friends could see it."
Ponikarovsky, 26, lives year-round in Toronto with his wife and two children. It is there that he works with a few charities, including the Easter Seals Society, which provides opportunities for people with disabilities. He feels the obligation to give back to a community that has given him great support.
Although he has not yet had an opportunity, Ponikarovsky is very open to the idea of working with a Ukrainian-based charity in the future. He is well aware of the very large Ukrainian community in his city, but he laments that there is little free time in his busy schedule.
In the off-season, Ponikarovsky tries to spend as much time with his children as possible. "I go fishing with them, but soon you have to start working-out for the next season," he said.
When asked whether he had considered running for mayor of Kyiv when he retires, Ponikarovsky laughed and said, "you have to become really famous to do that, and I don't think I am as big as [Vitalii] Klitschko."
Even though he still has his Ukrainian citizenship, Ponikarovsky is trying to stay out of the political ring right now. "I'm not going to vote, because it is a very sticky situation. My parents are even split on who they voted for," he said.
That same even-handedness is evident in Ponikarovsky's game, as he rarely speaks out, keeps his head down and skates to the corners because he has to.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 30, 2006, No. 18, Vol. LXXIV
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