Extraordinary night about more than hockey

War at home never far from thoughts of Ukrainian hockey team


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It was only an exhibition game, but it was an extraordinary night.

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It was only an exhibition game, but it was an extraordinary night.

Ukraine’s under-25 men’s national hockey team faced the University of Manitoba Bisons in a friendly contest Monday in front of the anthem-singing Hoosli Ukrainian Male Chorus and 7,821 supportive fans at Canada Life Centre.

Yet, amidst the thrill of touring Western Canada, the visitors continue to struggle with the horrors playing out at home.


Chief Executive Officer of The Ukrainian Ice Hockey Federation, Aleksandra Slatvytska, centre, drops the puck for Ukraine’s Vadym Mazur (left) and U of M Bisons’ Geordie Keane during a ceremonial faceoff before the exhibition game Monday at Canada Life Centre in Winnipeg.

“It’s a very difficult time. We are here, we are safe but our family, our parents, kids, grandmas and grandfathers stay in Ukraine,” said head coach Vadym Shakhraichuk Monday afternoon.

“It’s very difficult. We can’t concentrate just (on) hockey. Every time we call or we read the news what happened — how many rockets (Vladimir) Putin (sent) to Ukraine? — it’s very difficult. But we want to show the whole world Ukrainian hockey is alive, even when our country (is) going to war.”

The Ukrainians, making their fourth and final Western Canadian stop on the Hockey Can’t Stop Tour prior to their appearance at the World University Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., thumped the Bisons 5-1 to post their first victory of the series after previous losses to the Calgary Dinos, Alberta Golden Bears and Saskatchewan Huskies.

Proceeds from the game will benefit the Canada/Ukraine Foundation, which provides assistance to humanitarian groups in both countries.

Most of the tour earnings will go to the Save Ukrainian Hockey Dream, a charity operated by the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine in the wake of the nearly year-long Russian invasion.

“It’s hard mentally, of course, but we’re trying to stay positive,” said Gleb Krivoshapkin, a 22-year-old forward from Kharkiv. “We’re understanding everything what is going on, but we are trying to be professionals and we understand where we’re going and for what. So we’re trying to stay positive, talk to each other in the locker room, in the bus, at the hotel, to be on the same page… (so) we can play good hockey and do what we need to do for the win.”

The Ukrainians are exempt from military duty in order play for their war-ravaged country but their thoughts are never far from family and friends in harm’s way.

“A couple days ago, the missile hit, like, 100 metres from my house, my parents’ house,” said 18-year-old reserve goaltender Savva Serdiuk, who hails from Kyiv. “They’re doing fine right now. But that morning I woke up and I was just shocked. I thought it’s not going to affect my family and my friends. But it did.”


Ukraine’s Mykhailo Simchuk celebrates his first-period goal against the U of M Bisons Monday.

Going on tour has had obvious benefits for the Ukrainian team but it’s also having a positive impact on those living in fear of missiles at home.

“They are OK,” said Krivoshapkin, whose short-handed marker gave the Ukrainians a 3-0 second-period lead. “I mean, I’m on my phone with my parents every day almost. And I know what is going on there right now…. These games (are) helping them mentally… after the game (to) have a good emotions, to stay positive all next day because my father is not sleeping. He’s watching the games at night. So this is really helping them mentally first. They are happy about me, about us all of the boys.”

Mykhailo Simchuk, with two, Denys Matusevych and Yaroslav Panchenko also scored for the visitors. Devon Skoleski potted Manitoba’s lone goal 4:03 into the third period.

Serdiuk felt the positive vibes throughout the tour.

“I’m just really thankful to all the countries who are supporting us — especially Canadians, because without them we couldn’t be here,” said Serdiuk. “And I’m just really excited about the games and this tour. It just just means a lot for us as a hockey players and just regular guys from Ukraine.”

Oleksandra Slatvytska, CEO of the ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine, is accompanying the U25 squad on its tour. On the way from Edmonton to Winnipeg, the team bus stopped in Vegreville, Alta., with its large Ukrainian population, and received a rousing welcome.

“The boys were crying,” said Slatvytska, who is in North America with her eight-year-old son while her husband is engaged in defence work at home.

“We understand it is something special. This tour has started to be not only about the sports part, but more about the unity of the people around one problem. Because we really want to finish this war as fast as we can. Because people are dying for nothing.”


Team Ukraine head coach Vadym Shakhraichuk watches the action as his players jump over the boards Monday night at Canada Life Centre.

Slatvytska, noting 40 per cent of her country’s arenas have been destroyed since the outbreak of war, hopes the tour can clear $300,000 for charity.

Expenses are expected to come in at about $200,000.

Their experience in Canada is setting an example for the Ukrainians to make the sport more professionally run at home and thereby providing more of a future for players when their junior careers are over.

“When you see the spectators cheering for their team, you understand that hockey is more religion probably than just sport in Canada,” she said. “We love that. It makes me sense why I should continue to work to change the sport in Ukraine.”


Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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