(NEW YORK) — For a group of 18 Ukrainian boys, thoughts of being separated from family and their home country, which has now faced almost a year of brutal war combating Russia’s invasion, faded for a few brief moments at the Quebec City Videotron Centre on Saturday night.
The group, who had been traveling for weeks from different eastern European countries to play at the 63rd annual International Peewee Hockey Tournament in Quebec City, Canada, were focused on one thing: winning.
And win they did.
With 18,000 spectators packing the stadium, many wearing white to show support for peace in Ukraine, the pre-teen hockey players scored two goals in the final few minutes of the game, beating the Boston Junior Bruins with a 3-1 score.
But this game is only round one. The team advanced to round two on Monday, beating the Romanian Selects youth team 2-0. The Ukrainian team will play their next game Friday morning.
Ukrainian Selects, the peewee hockey team sponsored by Canadian hosts, is made up of Ukrainian refugees ages 11 to 13 who have been playing hockey since they were toddlers. More than half of the team’s players have fathers currently fighting against the Russian invasion in Ukraine.
The International Peewee Hockey Tournament, held in Quebec every year, is one of the largest in the world. Over 120 teams from more than 40 countries participate in the event.
Matviy Kulish, 13, who started playing hockey when he was about 4 or 5, has lived in the Czech Republic and France since the Ukraine-Russia war began last year. When he heard about the opportunity to play in the tournament in Canada, he couldn’t wait to go.
“It was my dream [to play] since I watched elder boys born in 2006 when they were participating in this tournament. I was waiting for this day to come,” Kulish told ABC News.
Kulish’s father is fighting against the Russian invasion in Ukraine while Kulish and his mother live in France. Kulish said he speaks to his father “once every three days.”
“Usually, I say to him, asking how is it going and he is answering — hi, everything is fine. I am alive,” Kulish said. “He also wants us to win this tournament. He worries about me.”
When Kulish’s father, Andriy Kulish, heard that his son and the team won the first game in the tournament, he told ABC News, “good job! I am so proud of them!”
The International Peewee Hockey Tournament is considered the world championship for this age group in hockey, volunteer manager and team sponsor Sean Bérubé told ABC News.
When war broke out in Ukraine last February, Bérubé contacted his host family he lived with in the country 28 years earlier and helped them escape. Bérubé contacted a friend in Romania to help coordinate getting the host family out of Ukraine through Romania.
After helping the couple escape, the Romanian friend and former hockey teammate, Yevgeniy Pysarenko, asked Bérubé to sponsor a Romanian hockey team. Bérubé said he would sponsor a team, but only if they were made up of Ukrainian refugees.
Pysarenko “took it seriously and got back to me a few months later with the same request,” Bérubé said. After that, Ukrainian Selects was born.
Bérubé has helped put the team together — covering the cost of the travel for the boys from Europe to Quebec City, finding host families for the boys to stay with while in Canada, organizing practices, finding coaches and even hosting a meeting between the boys and the U.S. Ambassador to Canada.
Co-captain of Ukrainian Selects, Olivier Hubert-Benoit, joined the effort when he heard what Bérubé was doing. Hubert-Benoit is also hosting one of the players while they are in Canada.
“When I heard the news that Sean was bringing a team, he was working hard to make it happen, I called Sean to let him know that I will give him full my time to make this project happen,” Hubert-Benoit told ABC News.
For most of the boys, competing in the tournament is also their first time visiting Canada.
Kulish finds Canada to be a “very nice country. Unusual but lovely,” he said. Kulish would like to train more and come back to Canada to possibly graduate from “the school in here and receive a sport scholarship at the local university,” he said.
While some of the players are interested in returning to Canada to pursue hockey, others would like to go back to Ukraine.
Mykyta Staskevych, 12, is currently living in Slovakia with his mom and playing hockey there while his father fights in the war. Staskevych said his year has been “full of good memories,” spending time in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania, but “I want to go home.”
“After this tournament, I would like to return home and play hockey in Ukraine,” Staskevych told ABC News. “But I will go to Slovakia instead and will play there at the moment.”
Staskevych’s father, Vyacheslav Staskevych, is currently fighting the Russian invasion in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
Staskevych started playing hockey when he was 4 at his mother’s insistence because she thought it would teach him discipline, and he quickly fell in love with the sport. Staskevych and his parents lived in Dnipro before the war started, his father said.
“Now he cannot imagine himself without hockey.” Vyacheslav Staskevych told ABC News. “When I found out that my son was going to the tournament in Quebec, I was in the east of the country. I was filled with a sense of pride, joy, and excitement.”
Vyacheslav Staskevych and his fellow soldiers recorded a message of support for his son and the rest of the team before the first game, wishing them luck.
“We are proud of you that you will go to Canada to defend our Ukraine with hockey sticks,” the group of soldiers from the 231st battalion, which Vyacheslav is a part of, said in the video message in Ukrainian. “We wish you success, victories and incredible impressions!”
For the fathers on the frontlines and the boys thousands of miles away getting ready to play another hockey game, it’s hard to tune out the realities of war. Even though the boys’ days are filled with hockey practice and preparing for the tournament, the war goes on. And the boys’ fathers keep fighting.
Vyacheslav Staskevych said he’s grateful for the people who have supported the Ukrainian hockey players.
“I would like to thank the organizers of the tournament for supporting Ukrainian hockey players and the development of youth hockey,” Vyacheslav Staskevych said. “I also want to thank all the caring people who support and provide assistance to Ukraine, Ukrainians and the military. Victory will be ours! Glory to Ukraine!”
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