Behind the Iron Curtain: The Abuse Behind Druzhba 78

Druzhba 78 was one of the best youth hockey teams in the world.  They had one of the most impressive win records.  They rarely lost.  The young team was reminiscent of the cold war Soviet teams that struck fear into every hockey club around the world.

Back in 1993, Brian Fishman of The Baltimore Sun wrote about Druzhba 78’s accomplishments.

Team Druzhba’s credentials are unmatched. In 1990, the team won the youth championship title of the Soviet Union. In the Peewee group, Druzhba 78 took first place in the prestigious Quebec International tournament, made up of the best 104 teams from Europe and North America. Last August, the club won the Richmond Hill Early Bird tournament in Toronto. And during the 102-5 run, Team Druzhba never lost twice to the same team or failed to win a tournament.

The hard work ethic was seen day in and day out as the team continued to win all across the world.  With each stop in their tour around the world, they taught other kids the importance of skating faster, being more accurate, and how to train off the ice.

On the outside, they were the picture perfect example of a team you wanted your children to be a part of.  But behind closed doors, this is the team you would never want your kids to go anywhere near.  As former Druzhba 78 alumni Dainius Zubrus (New Jersey Devils) said of the fate of Druzhba 78, “It’s a horrible story no matter which way you look at it.”

Over the years, host families in North America began to question the strange behavior of the Druzhba players, including those who came in the post-Druzhba 78 era.  They noticed bruises on the children that didn’t appear to be hockey related injuries.  There were whispers over the years that something wasn’t right.  It wasn’t until 2011, 15 years after Druzhba 78 disbanded that one player spoke out.  What he had to say will fill you with nightmares…even though he toned the story down for publication.

Maxim Starchenko detailed the abuse of Druzhba 78 in his book, “Behind the Iron Curtain: Tears in the Perfect Hockey ”GULAG”.”  It is one thing to read a horror story written by the likes of Stephen King, or watch a movie like “Saw.”  It is quite another to read a true story about the abuse of a child and be the same after you’ve read it.

For those who’ve seen these players play or speak to them in the locker room, it’s hard to look at them the same, thinking of the physical and mental abuse they had to go through just to become an elite hockey player.

Starchenko was one of the original Druzhba 78 players playing for coach Ivan Pravilov.  Like most of the Druzhba players, he started playing for Ivan when he was eight years old.

Druzhba means “friendship,” while 78 stood for the year the players were born.  Many of the boys started off being selected at their elementary schools in Kharkiv, Ukraine during a soccer tournament hosted by Pravilov.  Each boy was hand picked by Pravilov to become part of his elite youth hockey club.  In the summers, they played soccer.  In the winters, they played hockey.

Everything started off smoothly in the beginning, but as the months wore on, Pravilov’s patience grew thin and the abuse began.  Starchenko wrote of receiving a full tomahawk slap with a hockey stick against the back of his legs.  This was Pravilov’s method of teaching a player to bend lower.  Some received a “stick massage” which was what Pravilov used to describe a full slap against the buttocks (multiple times) in order to get the children to skate faster.

These weren’t light taps.  These were full blown abusive hits where it left the children black and blue.

For Starchenko, at that early age he received an injury that caused his neck to jerk a lot.  He had no idea how he got the injury.  Ivan took it upon himself to fix the injury when the head jerking got to be too much for his nerves.  He took a hockey stick and whacked it against Maxim’s neck.  When the first blow did not work, he continued to hit him again and again until the problem was fixed.  The problem was not a health issue in Ivan’s mind.

“Will you stop jerking now?” he asked, with his question sounding more like an order.  I responded that I would try, which I learned was not satisfactory.  My coach wanted a concrete answer of “yes.”  Thus, he swung his stick a couple of additional times to reinforce his point and landed it straight on my neck.  He actually aimed his swings this time, allowing for more accurate hits.”

Starchenko went on to say, “My father always reminded me in the past that if punished, I must be at some fault.”

Throughout his childhood, he went through that mindset that he must have done something wrong if Pravilov felt the need to punish him.  Not once did he consider that Pravilov was sadistic.  He always assumed he must have done something wrong if he was being punished.  Yet, as much as he tried to figure out what he did wrong, he was never able to reconcile what it was he did wrong.

Pravilov’s form of punishment was reminiscent of the Stalin era.  In order to truly understand how these boys were being coached, you have to understand the strict and brutal regime of Stalin.

Why didn’t the parents say anything when the boys came home black and blue?  There were a lot of reasons.  For some, Pravilov manipulated the parents into believing that everything was fine.  There was nothing wrong.  For others, this was the way hockey was taught in the Soviet Union.  There’s also the fact that the boys covered up the abuse and lied about what happened.  Then there are those parents that thought that if Pravilov could get their child to succeed in hockey and make a lot of money in the future, then he could do whatever he wanted with them.  After all, the success of Druzhba was evidence enough to the parents that his coaching style was working.

The desire for success, of course, had everything to do with the children being scared to death of what would happen to them if they lost or played poorly.

Pravilov not only beat these children into submission to play hockey the way he wanted them to play hockey, but he also manipulated them, as well as their parents.  At any point, if a child threatened to leave, Ivan would visit the parents and manipulate them into making sure the child returned.  He would even feed false promises to the child that the abuse would never happen again.  The child would return.  Things would go well for some time before Ivan would fall back into his old ways.

One incident of abuse involved Starchenko being commanded to do squats naked in front of Pravilov.  There was no one else around.  He was alone with the coach behind a locked door.  Pravilov took a hockey stick and hit him across the head with it, causing blood to pour from the wound.  He knew what would happen if he stopped or acknowledged the pain.  He continued to do the squats in front of Pravilov.

Pravilov then beat him, using the hockey stick across his bare buttocks.  After Ivan tired of the abuse after a few hours, he acted sweet, like a father would coddle his child, asking him, “Why would you let me do that to you?”  He helped him wash the dried blood from his face and head, he pulled out Max’s Dynamo hat from his jacket and put it on him, then sent him home.

That evening, when Max returned home, completely bruised and bloody, he told his parents that a puck hit him in the head and that Ivan kept him late to help stop the bleeding.  They didn’t question him.  The blood had soaked into his hat, so his mother took a pair of scissors and cut the hat from his head.

His buttocks had turned completely black.  He couldn’t hide the bruise under his underwear.  His mother saw it, commanded him to take a shower while she prepared to dress his head wounds.  Later, when Starchenko visited his mother years later as an adult, she told him she believed the story about the puck and never questioned it.

Pravilov also used humiliation to coach his boys into submission.  He made Starchenko dress like a girl once, and ordered his teammates to tease him and give him a hard time.

The boys’ loyalty to the coach was constantly tested.  He would wake the boys up, force them to stand up in the middle of the night with the lights on for hours.  If caught sleeping or sitting, the punishment would be severe.

At one point, he tested Starchenko’s loyalty by asking him to jump out the fourth floor window.  Max headed to the window, ready to jump out the window before Pravilov grabbed him and pulled him back in.

There was even an incident where the young Starchenko was forced to lick a dirty toilet bowl (filled with feces) clean.  It’s a surprise that he didn’t break mentally at this point in his story.

One of the worst incidents Starchenko describes in his book is the night Pravilov decided to use his stomach as a soccer ball.  He kicked him over and over and over again.

Pravilov got away with the abuse.  The boys remained quiet and loyal to Pravilov during the ten years Druzhba 78 was in existence.

Many of these kids spent time away from home, living with host families.  Dainius Zubrus, for example, lived with a host family in the Ukraine, because his family lived in Lithuania.

The boys also traveled all over the world, playing in various tournaments.  A few kids, including Starchenko, ran away.  But Max, always came back, because his parents forced him to go back.  One boy ran away while they were in Canada.  He never returned to the team.

This book details much of the abuse Starchenko went through while he was with Druzhba 78.  The book is horrifying to read.  He does not name other players he witnessed going through similar abuse, but he does describe certain abusive events that occurred to them.

Starchenko decided not to fully describe the events to the degree it happened.  The book is tame compared to the actual events.  It’s hard to imagine that the events were much worse than he described.  He decided to write it that way to spare the reader from truly visualizing the extent of the abuse.  It was much worse than he described it to be.

You can hear his interview about the abuse here.

The level of abuse that occurred is scary, especially for any child, and heartbreaking for those who read Starchenko’s book.

This book was published on December 26, 2011.  Just a few short weeks later in January 2012, two 14-year old Ukrainian boys that were in the United States training with Pravilov, reported that he had sexually abused them.  The coach was arrested and put into a federal detention facility.  He committed suicide just a few short weeks later.

There are no reports that Pravilov sexually abused any of the Druzhba 78 players, but according to Starchenko’s book, there were a few incidents that occurred that may have sparked the abuse that came later.

As for the two boys, they still remain in the United States with their host families.  Dainius Zubrus has been helping them out where he can.  Zubrus’s interview on Druzhba 78 will be coming up on Inside Hockey shortly.  This will be the first time and the last time he will speak of what happened.

For more information on the abuse of Druzhba 78, read Starchenko’s book as well as Walter Babiy’s “Reign of Fear.”