‘Mission accomplished’: Ukrainian peewee hockey team arrives in Canada for Quebec tournament
Outfitted in matching tracksuits, 18 Ukrainian kids’ jaws dropped as they saw the rink at the Vidéotron Centre in Quebec City for the first time.
The 11 and 12-year-old boys had been travelling for over 24 hours, but some gasped as others looked wide-eyed seeing the size of the arena they will play in as part of the Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament.
The boys arrived on Wednesday evening with their four coaches and were welcomed by volunteer host families and organizers after their long journey.
Sean Bérubé met the group at the Montreal airport earlier that day — a goal he had been working toward for months.
He volunteered his time helping the team’s coach Yevhenii Pysarenko with paperwork and visas from Immigration Canada — finally getting all the kids documents in time for the competition they had long set their sights on.
“I feel like a mission accomplished. So I’m gonna sleep well tonight,” said Bérubé, adding that he hopes the team will have a great three weeks in Canada.
“I just want them to live the experience like they’re an NHL star and put their mind on hockey instead of being worried.”
From ‘mission impossible’ to ‘miracle on the ice’
Pysarenko began forming the team as early as March 2022, not long after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
He played hockey with Bérubé in the 90s in Ukraine and even played in the Quebec Pee-Wee tournament himself decades ago.
When Bérubé visited Ukraine in an attempt to get his former coach out of the country after the war broke out, his old teammate Pysarenko lent a hand.
To thank Pysarenko for his aid, Bérubé offered to buy him a beer, but he asked for a slightly bigger favour instead — support in getting a Ukrainian hockey team to Canada.
“I kind of joked it off,” recalled Bérubé. “I didn’t think he was that serious … but I think the project grew in him.”
What seemed like a dream turned into reality, said Pysarenko.
“Before it was mission impossible and now it is a miracle on the ice,” said Pysarenko. “We tried to explain [to] them it’s special. It’s not only hockey, it’s beyond hockey and we’re like messengers for the world.”
Although it was a long travel day, he says the kids were jumping around in the airport, eager “to go out and see Canada.”
“It’s memories for all their life … Some of [their] fathers are fighting now, in the war, and they know this. You cannot forget this but [now] they are smiling and happy.”
Maksym Kukharenko and Dmytro Korzh, two of the young players, look forward to exploring the city this month and playing in the arena for their first game on Feb. 11.
“For me, I’m very scared because [there will be] very many people and it’s very exciting for me and crazy,” said Korzh.
Helping kids through something that ‘isn’t their fault’
Nine families in Quebec City will host the young players. Many of them, including Alexis Lamontagne’s family, welcomed them at the Vidéotron Centre.
A secondary four student at St. Patrick’s High School, Lamontagne played in the tournament three years ago and is looking forward to meeting the two players staying in his home.
“My mom’s going to take good care of them all throughout their stay of 19 days which is pretty long and I think they’re gonna have an amazing time and I’m going to have an amazing time,” said Lamontagne, adding that he will get to practise with the team this coming week.
“It’s really touching to make a difference in a problem I can’t really help them [with] since it’s kind of a big conflict. I’m a hockey player, they’re hockey players, we’re both kids and I’m really touched to be able to help them through something that unfortunately isn’t their fault.”
Rémi Bourgeois will also welcome two players into his family. Having bought bunk beds and candies for the kids, he says he first got involved after seeing an email chain through St. Patrick’s High School — his son’s school.
He says he wants to ensure the players can relax and have a “little break” from the realities they face back home.
Ever since they announced the initiative to get the Ukrainian players to Quebec, the response has been encouraging, said Patrick Dom, general manager of the peewee hockey tournament.
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“The people in Quebec were just wonderful … You can’t explain what’s going to be the feeling for these kids, but I’m sure … 30 to 40 years from now, they will still remember what happened here,” said Dom, getting teary-eyed.
“I mean at the end of the third period, you know, whatever is gonna be [the] results — 3-2, 4-1, 5-0, — that doesn’t matter at all … As long as they are here.”