In 2014, Olga Dolinina worked in public relations and marketing for Hockey Club Donbass in Donetsk, Ukraine– a time when great uncertainty gripped the country.
In May of that year, armed rebels burned and damaged the team’s stadium. Dolinina didn’t know if they’d play the next season in a different city — or at all. Even if the team resumed operations, she wasn’t sure she’d feel safe moving back to Donetsk. A few weeks after the stadium attack, a shooting occurred just outside the team offices.
A colleague turned up the music to drown out the sound of gunfire. Dolinina didn’t know if she could safely walk or take a cab to her apartment.
“I was really scared,” Dolinina said. “That was the first time when I could see that events I’d watched on television were happening so close to me.” Despite her fears and the challenges in her own life, one question loomed in Dolinina’s mind: How could she help children affected by the crisis? Like Dolinina, many families fled from violence-stricken areas in eastern Ukraine to different parts of the country.
“Thousands of children are suffering,” she said. “And need psycho-social support and help with adaptation to their host communities.” Hockey, she believed, could alleviate stress and foster understanding and resilience.
“It’s the smallest thing that can be done for children,” she said. “Children shouldn’t be witnesses of war.” In the fall of 2014, Olga Dolinina arrived in the United States for the Global Sports Mentorship Program. When she returned to Ukraine, Dolinina launched Break The Ice.
Since then, more than 1,000 young people in the country have participated in the organization’s table and ice hockey programs. “It’s something like a common language,” Dolinina said. “Through sports, you feel like one team. You can accept other children and then make friendships, learn life skills and build peace in the community.”
Dolinina grew up an only child in Dnipropetrovsk. From an early age, she played outside with boys. The experience taught her firsthand the equalizing and empowering effect athletic endeavors can have for girls.Dolinina earned a master’s degree in sports management and worked as a sports journalist and press officer for the Football Federation of Ukraine. She didn’t know much about hockey when she joined HC Donbass in 2013, but with her strong background in sports business, she quickly learned.
In her year with HC Donbass, she oversaw programs that reached out to the community in general and children in particular. When she first applied for the Global Sports Mentoring Program, she thought she could use what she would learn there to expand her efforts on behalf of the club.
The war changed everything. As she contemplated what was next in her own life, Dolinina realized she could harness sports as a tool to alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder and similar problems among displaced children.
She was thrilled to be paired with mentor Susan Cohig, senior vice president of business affairs and integrated marketing for the National Hockey League. The match seemed ideal to Cohig, as well.
“Using sports to empower kids, create opportunities for them to have a safe place to go,” Cohig said. “All the things that she wanted to accomplish are things we do in the communities we’re in.”
Cohig and other program leaders helped Dolinina with the logistics of her program, including gathering data on the impact of PTSD, compiling evidence of the benefits of sports participation for children in conflict zones and fine-tuning messaging she could use to raise funds and build partnerships.
These tactics proved critical because, with the future of HC Donbass uncertain, Dolinina couldn’t count on institutional support. In fact, the team suspended operations for the 2014-2015 season, and Dolinina never returned to her job there.
At first, the idea of starting a project from scratch seemed daunting.
“The more I researched and realized the problem could be helped and cured, the more I was inspired by the projects of other members of the program,” Dolinina said. “I decided, ‘Yes, I can do this myself.'”
Dolinina realized the expense of ice hockey equipment might delay her efforts. While she worked to secure funding for things such as skates, helmets and pads, she also sought partners and money for less costly table hockey tournaments. With help from organizations such as the International Table Hockey Federation, she held her first two table hockey events in 2015. Now, Break The Ice and its partners hold regular tournaments in Donetsk, Luhansk, Dnipropetrovsk and Kiev.
Twelve-year-old Anna Ivantsova, who moved from Donestk to Kiev last year, even qualified for the Ukranian national table hockey team. Break The Ice provided funding for Ivantsova and her mother to travel to Estonia for the European Table Hockey Championship, a journey Dolinina feels exemplifies the opportunities the program offers children, especially girls.
As the table hockey program began flourishing, Dolinina learned that a grant she had applied for from the National Hockey League Players Association came through. Now, she has two full sets of ice hockey equipment. A girl’s team called Ukrainochka and a boy’s team, Sokol, both of which consist of local and displaced children, regularly put the gear to use.
Some players hope to reach professional status. Ukrainochka now participates in the Ukrainian Women’s League, Dolinina said. A group of players from both teams traveled to the United States last year, making stops at NHL facilities in Washington, D.C., and New York, where Cohig works.
“Being in the room with all these young kids, girls and boys, was really special,” Cohig said. “It was Olga’s work paying off, creating this opportunity to take them away from the difficulties they were experiencing to understand and benefit from what sports can do to make a difference in their lives. It was a full-circle moment.”
The mentoring experience has come full circle for Dolinina too. “It changed my life,” she said.
Two months ago, she began working as an education officer for UNICEF. In the role, she oversees — among other projects — soccer and volleyball championships aimed at improving the lives of displaced children throughout Ukraine.
As need increases — about 1.7 million people have been displaced by the conflict, including 300,000 children — Dolinina says there’s no chance she’ll leave skates and pucks behind. She’ll continue to look for ways to expand the impact of Break The Ice. One option: bring it under the auspices of UNICEF and leverage the organization’s resources to make the ultimate power play for peace.
Cindy Kuzma is a freelance health and fitness writer in Chicago, contributing editor at Runner’s World magazine and marathon runner. You can read more of her work at www.cindykuzma.com.