When former Niagara Predators general manager Johan Eriksson left that role in December to accept a position as director of hockey operations with Marych Sports Agency, he had no clue he would find himself in the midst of a major conflict.
Based as it is in Ukraine, the agency is dealing with a number of players born in that country, and some playing there while the nation continues to be attacked by Russian forces.
“Andrii Marych came to me in December and offered me a partnership of sorts,” Eriksson explains. “We are three guys, one who covers the US, I do Scandinavia and Canada and some of Europe, and Andrii does Eastern Europe.”
Leading up to the day Russia moved on Ukraine, Eriksson wasn’t expecting Putin’s forces to actually invade the country.
“I just thought this is what Russia does,” he tells The Local from his Welland home. “I didn’t think they would actually do anything. This is a game changer on every single level. We have about 20 players still in Ukraine, and some of them are fighting age, which is 18 and over. Those guys are not allowed to leave Ukraine.”
The concern Eriksson and Marych have is that these young hockey players may be enlisted to join the war effort if the invasion continues. Marych himself is also considered fighting age and is currently unable to leave the country as well.
In addition, there are a number of Ukrainian players signed with the Marych Agency who have been playing in the U.S. and Sweden. The prospect of them returning home during the conflict is out of the question right now.
“The question is, where do they go?” says Eriksson. “For them not to go back home, they need a contract, they need a team, they need somewhere to stay. Their current contracts and accommodations only last until late March. Where are they going to go? It’s been a few crazy weeks for all of us.”
The native of Sweden credits the hockey community in his homeland for doing whatever they can to help out the young players facing this predicament.
“The young guys we have in Sweden, three of them played Junior 20 this past season,” he explains. “They have to pay for their own food, apartments and gear. Now, money can’t easily go out of Ukraine for them. One team held a fundraiser to help them continue to live there, and arranged summer jobs for them. Now they will be able to stay in Nässjö next year.”
Eriksson doesn’t rule out bringing Ukrainian players to Canada for next season.
Beyond the Marych-signed players, he ponders the future of European hockey in general.
“The whole hockey map in Europe is already starting to change,” he tells The Local. “Pro teams are telling me they won’t sign Russians. They are afraid to lose sponsorships. It’s opening spots in leagues in places like Poland, which traditionally has a lot of Russian players.”
“As well,” he continues, “no imports are going to go to play in the Russian (pro) KHL (Kontinental Hockey League) league either. Teams from other countries in the KHL are beginning to pull out of the league, too.”
Indeed, Finland’s Jokerit Helsinki pulled out of the playoffs last week. He was followed by Latvia’s Dynamo Riga the next day.
“This is going to affect every league in Europe,” Eriksson predicts.
And it’s affecting every nation in Europe, confirms the 38-year-old.
“I can’t remember ever a time in my life when Swedes have been this nervous,” he says. “Though it’s not part of NATO, Sweden has NATO bases, and we’ve sent troops to help Ukraine. It’s really the first time people in Sweden have talked about a war as an actual possibility since the 1800s.”
“We take it hour by hour,” Eriksson concludes. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in a few days, or even in 10 minutes. Anything can change in any given moment.”