South Carolina Stingrays forward Igor Gongalsky has never been very interested in politics.
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WHO: Fort Wayne Komets vs. South Carolina Stingrays
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Where: North Charleston Coliseum
Records: Rays 38-20-6 (84 points); Komets 30-23-11 (71 points)
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Gongalsky's primary focus over the past decade has been professional hockey and making it to the NHL.
But these days Gongalsky can't turn on the television without seeing something new about the unrest in his homeland of Ukraine.
When Gongalsky takes the ice Friday night against the Fort Wayne Komets at the North Charleston Coliseum, there will be a lot more on his mind than hockey.
Gongalsky has been trying to keep up with current events in his homeland since the Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula, which is located in the southwestern corner of Ukraine, along the shores of the Black Sea.
Gongalsky's father and grandfather, both named Vladimir, still live in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, a city of more than 2 million people. Gongalsky said he has been in constant contact with both his father and grandfather since the violence started late last year.
"I've talked with both of them several times since everything started to happen," Gongalsky said. "I was a little nervous when the riots started, but they made it through that. I think everything has calmed down a little bit since then, or at least it has in Kiev."
The origins of the conflict started in November when Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Angry mobs took to the streets of Kiev and began to occupy government buildings. The violence hit its zenith in late February when government forces and protesters clashed and nearly 100 people died.
"That's when I was most concerned for father and grandfather," Gongalsky said. "All the riots and violence was happening in Kiev. I had a lot of friends that I grew up with that were still in the army."
The situation escalated earlier this month when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Crimea.
"It would be like if Canada decided they were going to take back Buffalo or Detroit," Gongalsky said.
The issues of whether the Ukraine should join the European Union or have closer ties to Russia are complex, Gongalsky said. Most Americans don't understand the geopolitical forces at work in the Ukraine, where 20 percent of its citizens can trace their ancestry back to Russia.
Gongalsky, 27, was born a citizen of the Soviet Union and grew up speaking Russian before he learned Ukrainian - his second language. He still speaks Russian when he talks to his father and grandfather. However, Gongalsky never considered himself a Russian or a citizen of the now defunct Soviet Union. He was just 3 years old when the Berlin Wall fell and 5 when the Soviet Union began to disintegrate.
"The first school I went to was a Russian school, but I am a Ukrainian," Gongalsky said.
Gongalsky, who moved to Canada when he was a teenager to pursue his hockey career, said most Ukrainians want to be a part of the EU, but there are certain pockets of the country that still want to have ties with Russia.
"The western part of the country, the parts that are closer to Europe, want to be in the EU," Gongalsky said. "But as you go to the eastern parts of the country where a lot of the oil and coal and natural gas is, they want to be a part of Russia. That's why Putin is so interested in the Ukraine."
Gongalsky played pro hockey in the Ukraine last year.
"We were more worried about getting paid each week than any politics," Gongalsky said with a chuckle. "All the political stuff with Russia and the European Union started to become an issue just as I was leaving."
Gongalsky said he'll continue to call and email his father and grandfather to make sure they're safe. He said he's not sure if or when he'll return to his birthplace.
"I'm hoping that they'll come to see me," said Gongalsky, who lives in Toronto during the offseason. "I think it'll be better for everyone if they come to see me."
Stingray's Igor Gongalsky and Florida's Danick Gauthier chase after the puck during their game Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 at the North Charleston Coliseum. Paul Zoeller/Staff×
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