Danylo Korzhyletskyi wears his home country of Ukraine on his sleeve

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Danylo Korzhyletskyi played for the Amarillo Wranglers last season while dealing with his family back in Ukraine during the current war against Russia. [Lauren Corea/ For Press Pass Sports]
By Tom and Kathy Tortoreo

As a billet family for the Amarillo Wranglers, we enjoy hosting get togethers for the players on the team.

A major event in our house every year is the Daytona 500, so on February 20 of last winter we hosted a cook-out during the event. We love getting the players invested in the race, so we have them pick drivers’ names out of a hat and spur some allegiances that makes the race in the house loud and fun. This is when we first met Danylo Korzhyletskyi.

Dany walked into the living room meeting us for the first time. He wore a vibrant smile, outgoing demeanor, a commanding presence, and a joyful personality. He lit up the room.

He probably thought we would ask him about the rising tensions in Ukraine, his home country, and the possible impending difficulties being outlined on the news daily. Instead, I asked him “Aren’t the discotheques in Kyiv off the hook?” His smile got bigger, his eyes got brighter, and his excitement and love for his country came bursting out. It was at that moment I realized this young man not only had a passion for the Ukraine, but he also had a passion for the United States. After we discussed discotheques in Kyiv, he started telling me about the incredible opportunity he had to play hockey in this country, and how soon his dreams of playing hockey at the highest level could be a real possibility.

Throughout this whole conversation Dany demonstrated a mastery of the English language, only occasionally hesitating to find the right word. You could feel, hear, and see his investment and love for hockey, his teammates and his opportunities. I knew at that moment what a genuine and unique individual he was. A few days later, Russia invaded Ukraine. My thoughts went immediately to Dany. The next time I saw him, I happened to be at the Amarillo Ice Ranch, the training facility for the Wranglers, and I visited with Dany. He was not the same person.

That vibrant smile, outgoing demeanor and joyful personality had changed. This was a young man who overnight had his whole world turned upside down.

His feeling of helplessness and vulnerability, as much as he tried to hide it, was apparent. The unfathomable fear he had for his family and his country is something no one should have to endure. And yet, Dany had to put on his gear, lace up his skates, put on his helmet, and still concentrate on practicing.

I had an opportunity to spend some time with Dany over the next few months before the end of the Wranglers’ season. Dany is the youngest of two sons, born to Andriy and Inna, in June of 2003 in Kyiv, Ukraine. The family are proud Ukrainians, with a long and very proud heritage in that country and a deep love for the culture and the people there. Dany’s Ukrainian roots run deep: a distant ancestor migrated from Poland 500 years ago. According to family information his ancestor was an expert craftsman of weapons who, after his weapons were used for war, left the country disillusioned and began anew in Ukraine.

Dany’s family has lived in Kyiv for generations. His grandmother, Zina, lives in the region close to the city, and now, Dany’s father, Andriy, is on the front lines putting his life on the line for his country. I asked him how he came to love hockey and become such a skilled player. Dany started skating as he learned to walk. He recalled starting to learn hockey from his father at 5 or 6-years old. Dany shared fond memories from childhood of going to the nearby skating rink “Kryshynka” (the “small iceberg” as it was locally affectionally known, but demolished many years ago), while playing Red Hot Chili Peppers and AC/DC, some of his father’s favorites. He mentioned Californication, one of his father’s
favorite Red Hot Chili Pepper songs.

He stated his father would write out his workouts and monitor his progress.

In Dany’s family hockey was a way of life, a part of who they were.

Dany remembers a small café on the corner a short distance from Kryshynka, getting ham and cheese sandwiches often. He described in his early childhood practicing hockey and meeting with his friends later in the day to play “futbol” (what we know as soccer). But as he grew older hockey became the focus.

Dany described that in his early teens he sought out wider opportunities playing hockey in Slovenia, a small Eastern European country. He moved there with his brother Dmitriy, nine years his senior, and their mother, Inna. Dmitriy was a great hockey player in his own right, and later became one of the best skills coaches in all of Eastern Europe. Dany spoke of his brother with great admiration describing Dmitriy sacrificing his own future goals in order to coach and train his younger brother.

“My brother could build a good business in Kyiv,” Dany said. “He’s a smart guy. But he decided to come with me to coach. He’s my favorite person. He give me everything that he could.” In describing his brother, Dany said he idolized him, detailed a level of loyalty to
family and friends, and a dedication to a work ethic that Dany now demonstrates daily. Dmitriy’s expectations for Dany were set at an exceptionally high level. In order to get extra ice time weekly, Dmitriy arranged for 6:30 a.m., ice two days a week.

He expected Dany to be prepared, to dedicate focus both on and off the ice, without error. Workouts on ice at 6:30 a.m.; gym workout at 8:00 a.m.; after, Dany would nap and Dmitriy would go to his construction job for six hours; then more ice time and skills training. Dmitriy demanded preparation, consistency. Dany described,

“He’s always mad at me,” Danny said. “I was practicing one day, and I couldn’t pull puck two times out of two so he was just mad.

He said you’re doing this every day. How you can’t get this puck?’ I was like, chill. It’s probably not my day He then said what am I putting that much effort in you, and you’re less here. Then, one hour at gym it was silence. Deadly silence. Like, not a word, he’s just going say ‘Do that now!’”

But throughout this, Dany makes clear: he understands his brother and why his brother is so frustrated with him. And now, Dany’s brother, Dmitriy, is on the front lines, putting his life on the line for his country. Dany’s development and dedication to hockey has always been fully supported by his entire family. He described his mother also moving to Slovenia, in support of her son’s continuing development, a sacrifice taking her away from her home country. He continues to feel that love and support today. Inna is what you would expect in
a mom. She protects her son from the full view of Ukraine’s current situation. She won’t tell Dany details, but always presents a strong front in what can only be assumed as the worst of circumstances. And now, Dany’s mother, Inna, supports the front lines with food and supplies daily.

I asked Dany what life was like in Ukraine before he came to the U.S. He described his girlfriend and the things they used to do together in Kyiv. Spending time with Tania in some of the beautiful parts of the city, especially Taras Shevchenko park, deep in the heart of the “green city” as it’s known by the locals. Dany described walking through the park, holding his girlfriend’s hand, looking at the blue sky, smelling the coffee in the air, just loving his city.

“Summer is good weather,” Dany said. “A lot of green trees, bushes, so it’s really beautiful. You can see the rich part of Kyiv, all the expensive buildings, all the Gucci stores, the Louis Vuitton stores. Also we have the Dnipro River. Kyiv is split, two coasts. We say right coast and the left coast. Right coast is the old one, like thousand and a half years old, really old city. And left coast, it’s new.”

However, this park and its city, is in the middle of a war zone. Dany’s arrival to Amarillo began the next phase in his journey as a hockey player. One of the first things I asked him was how he mastered English.

“Everything with my English study starts when I moved to Slovenia,” Dany said. “Friends help me with Slovenian and English. Then I broke my hand in my first or second month when I get to Slovenia. I just started to watch The Walking Dead and Peaky Blinders.”
Dany then described how he learned Slovenian.

“I was just playing Fortnite with my friends,” Dany said.

So, no literacy Dany didn’t take a class. He learned English from Netflix, and Slovenian through Fortnite.

The Amarillo Wranglers brought Dany onto its roster in February of 2022. He explained that his advisor in Ukraine told him in order to reach the next level of hockey, he had to go to the United States, so for Dany that was logically his next move.

He played his first game on Feb. 4 against the Wichita Falls Warriors. Dany had three assists (+3) in his first game. Fans could see his skill and personality from the very beginning. He continued to contribute to the successes of the team throughout the remainder of the season. Seven goals, 11 assists, for a total of 18 points in just three short months.

Ironically, the final game Dany played in Amarillo was against the Warriors, in which he had a goal and an assist, and was named most valuable player of the game. Dany is clear about his goals moving forward. He wants to play college hockey with an eye to playing hockey at the highest level in this country.

I asked Dany, “How are you able to focus, train and play hockey at one of the highest levels in this country without missing a beat?”

Danny said.

“Those seconds before the face-off, you can just stand there and when the referee isn’t throwing the puck for a few seconds, and some random thinking comes to your mind that can ruin your mindset for the game. I mean, my thoughts about the war, it just can’t come every moment of the game. And just sitting on the bench, it can distract me. I’m trying to not put those thoughts in my head and just be focused. But sometimes it just sneaks into my head.”

Dany utilizes the mental skills taught to him by his brother to stay focused in practice and in games in order to emotionally survive his worries and concerns about his family and his country. I mentioned to Dany the perception that many had at the outset of threats to his country, that it would be over in one or two days. He immediately said.

“It’s 50 days today.”

This powerful statement made it clear how this war constantly occupies his thoughts. I asked him if he had any concerns in January coming to the United States with the potential imminent invasion by Russia. He was specific: the threats in his country were a way of life since about 2014. So, his perspective was that a risk was no more credible in January when he left Ukraine than it had been for the previous eight years.

He described his experience in hearing about the invasion.

“Everything was blurred,” Dany said. “I don’t really like to remember. It was like a boom, I don’t really remember.

We talked about a typical response to trauma with the thought or fear about losing one’s family, losing one’s country. His description of remembering the news is typical in a trauma victim – he can’t remember details or specifics. He has only images and emotions from those first few days. Dany described his efforts to limit his exposure to the chaos and atrocities of war in his country.

“We have social media in Ukraine,” Dany said. “You can watch everything you want. I’m not trying to watch a lot of news about it, but I don’t want to be distracted from all of it. I just cannot be caught up from all the news, so I’m trying to not read all of it.”

What he does want from home is contact with his family. He and his brother have a set time for contact at 4:00 a.m. On a recent call, Dany told Dmitriy how much he missed him. His brother told Dany in a joking manner he only missed him after his good games.

That loyalty to family and country leads him to feel guilt for not being there now. Dany said he would be back in Ukraine with his family, fighting, if they would let him. He even considered what it would take to get smuggled in. But they’ve made it clear he is not to come home right now.

“If I would receive a green light from my brother and father, I would 100 percent come and fight.” Dany said. “I love my country, and I love my city. It raised me. I love the Ukraine. It will be my favorite place till my days end.”

Though Dany can’t make it back home, his brother explained something very important to him by telling Dany that his struggle was hockey, and he must represent his country on the hockey front. Even with his brother’s encouragement he continues to feel guilty about being safe in the United States.

“It’s so hard to be here eating a steak with the guys when I know that my brother is eating canned food there.” Dany said.”

As the war continues life for Dany’s family goes on. His girlfriend is actively involved in rescuing pets left behind by families who fled the violence. His mother continues to provide food and support for those on the front lines. His grandmother, who lives outside the city of Kyiv but in the region, refuses to leave the area. She is only permitted to be outside two hours per week during a Russian cease-fire, which enables her to make phone calls. Her area is under threat of Russian snipers if residents are outside any other time.

His father and brother continue to be actively involved in resistance fighting on the front lines and putting their lives at risk for the home, the people, the country they love.

Following the end of the North American Hockey League season and due to Dany’s inability to return home, he is staying in Ohio with his uncle. They do what they can to support their country.

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