They play like the Red Army team that dominated international hockey for two decades. They use a quick-passing, attacking-from-transition style taken right out of any respected European hockey manual. Their record against teams from North America -- 102-5 in the past year -- and the scores they regularly inflict on their opponents would impress Mario Lemieux.
Yet the record and methodical fashion in which they pick apart their opponents' weaknesses are not the most intriguing features to this Ukrainian hockey team.
It's the age of the players.
Druzhba 78 is comprised entirely of 15-year-olds who were picked from 100 elementary schools in Kharkiv and put together six years ago by coach Ivan Pravilov.
"We are always together," Dmitriy Sirenko said. "He's like a father for us. Without him, it would be tough."
In six years, Druzhba 78 has traveled to almost every hockey-playing country and competed against the best competition. Team Druzhba is recognized as the world's best ice hockey team of its age group.
For much of July, 16 members of Druzhba 78 have been at Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton, working with campers of the College Prep Hockey Academy. At any afternoon session during their three-week stay, these players are helping the students with power skating skills and off-ice exercises developed by Pravilov. The players of Druzhba 78 get the same respect from the campers as the adult camp instructors -- Pravilov, Terry Brand, Len Quesnelle, Lew Mongelluzzo and Vic Hugo.
The campers watched Druzhba 78 defeat the Washington Little Capitals, 13-0, Saturday night at Piney Orchard, and they realize this is a once-in-a-hockey-lifetime chance to learn strategy from their counterparts.
"This team plays a superior team game," said Stanley Klos, president of Piney Orchard Ice Management, Inc. "Their skating style is very different from anything you'd see from 15-year-olds around here because they do everything at full speed. There's no wasted effort. They move at top speed all the time. On the ice, they have a tremendous ability to keep this high pace for all three periods."
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 lTC team or failed to win a tournament.
The work is never complete. Even after humiliating a club in Edmonton, for instance, Pravilov found things to work on the next morning in practice.
"We have to work on everything," Pravilov said. "You can't be perfect. We're far from perfect."
Team Druzhba (Ukrainian for friendship) has more on its agenda than winning tournaments. Pravilov has tried to teach his players that they can spread a message of camaraderie through their athletic position. They may win contests by embarrassing margins. After the games, however the sport serves as a friendly link between teen-agers of different cultures.
Pravilov has established a work ethic in his players. The youngsters know their purpose: to help the campers as much as possible during the short stay. Pravilov may be at one end of the ice leading a small group though a skating drill. At the other end, out of his view, five of his players will be directing campers as if Pravilov were right there, critiquing their leadership.
"Our coach gives them help. They don't get from anyone else," Sirenko said.
The biggest hurdle for Team Druzhba is financing these trips. The club brings souvenirs to North America, and the pin and sweat shirt sales help somewhat, but it is contributions from their hosts -- like local Ukrainian communities -- that usually make these ventures possible.
The motto for this group is "We will always play for you and give you joy with our play." No one, outside of the players on the teams that line up against them, will dispute the enjoyment that comes from watching Druzhba 78 in games and practices.