A former NHLer’s bravery and sacrifice on the ground in Ukraine
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.