To Russia, with love

Ian Gibbons’ favorite NHL team is the Anaheim Ducks, while Sasha Chmelevski prefers the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But it was as Wildcats that the two Huntington Beach residents have accomplished so much.

Gibbons, 11, and Chmelevski, 10, won Southern California Amateur Hockey Assn. and California Amateur Hockey Assn. titles with the Anaheim Wildcats Squirt 98 team in May. Now, they’re in St. Petersburg, Russia, taking on an opportunity that was too good to pass up.

Gibbons and Chmelevski left Wednesday for a 10-day trip, playing on a Team USA Select team that also includes Ivan Lodnia of Anaheim and youth players from Michigan and Minnesota. They’ll be playing against several teams from Russia, Finland and the Czech Republic.

Lodnia is the son of Wildcats Coach Konstantin Lodnia, who owns the KHS Ice Arena in Anaheim.

The Russia trip will be a collection of some of the top youth hockey players, some of whom, like Chmelevski, got started at a young age. His parents are from the Ukraine but dad Vitaly, who also coaches, was more of a soccer player. But, before he turned 2 years old, Sasha was already on the ice.

“He just let me touch the ice a little bit,” said Sasha Chmelevski, who attends Hope View Elementary. “Then, after a couple months I started skating by myself. I got used to it.”

He’s plenty used to it now. Sasha said two years ago, he went to Russia to play in a tournament organized by former pro Igor Larionov. Last month, the center went to the prestigious Brick tournament, for the top North American players born in 1999. Chmelevski helped the California 99s reach the semifinals for the first time since 2003, and he led the tournament with 13 points (three goals, 10 assists).

And it’s Gibbons’ job to stop opposing players like his friend.

The goalie, who goes to Seacliff Elementary, has already shown he can do just that on a high level. He won the Ace Bailey National Skills Competition recently in New York City. Gibbons had to defeat 11 other top travel goalies, regional winners from around the country, in rapid-fire and shootout drills.

There’s few things that get Gibbons rattled, even at a competition like that. He said not even on a breakaway will he panic.

More than the ice on the rink, he needs ice in his veins.

“I don’t want to feel nervous,” Gibbons said. “Our coach says if you’re nervous, your feet will stop moving.”

Lodnia, the Wildcats coach, doesn’t teach his players to be nervous. Vitaly Chmelevski said the team’s style is more finesse than a casual fan might think, far from the typical perception of thuggish ice hockey players and constant tussles.

The Los Angeles Junior Kings were a team that the kids said played that had a more aggressive style, but the Wildcats beat them to win both SCAHA and CAHA titles this year.

“They’re big-time rivals,” Sasha Chmelevski said, not mincing words. “They’re nasty and they like to show off. We’re hard-workers, and they work hard but they’re fancy. I don’t like their attitudes ... we have a different system.”

Still, although Gibbons and Chmelevski might not be constantly punching an opponent in the face, there is plenty of action involved. They also like soccer, which not surprisingly also requires players to be constantly moving.

This summer, Gibbons and Chmelevski have also been keeping busy as Huntington Beach Junior Lifeguards.

“Ian has told me that to him, baseball is boring,” said Gibbons’ mom, Cheryl. “He’s so used to playing hockey. Especially at their age, it holds their attention more, instead of having them lose focus.”

No time for that. The players practice as a team three days a week, plus individual practice. Plus, ice hockey gear and travel aren’t cheap when you’re going to multiple tournaments a year outside California.

Chris Gibbons, Ian’s dad, estimated it could cost close to $25,000 a year when all totaled up.

“The cost keeps a lot of people out,” Chris Gibbons said.

But, for these two young hockey players, the positives appear obvious. They’re currently in a mecca of ice hockey — Russia — playing with top talent from around the world.

That’s nothing to shake a hockey stick at.

“I like it not just because you play it, but because you meet new friends,” Sasha Chmelevski said. “You can get in touch and score more goals.”

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