QUEBEC CITY (AP) — No matter the outcome in the games ahead, coach Evgheniy Pysarenko knows his hockey team of young Ukrainian refugees has already won.
“That’s what I told them,” Pysarenko said after the Ukrainian Selects’ 2-0 win over Team Romania at the International Peewee Tournament in Quebec City earlier this week.
What impresses Pysarenko about this collection of 11- and 12-year-olds cobbled together from Ukraine and bordering countries where their families fled the Russian invasion is not so much the two victories they’ve already posted.
Instead, it’s the stoic resilience they’ve displayed — mature beyond their age, he says — in balancing playing a game while buffering the life-and-death realities occurring at home. Some of their fathers and fathers of friends are in battle; one player’s father died fighting on the front lines.
In a time of crisis, this team has fulfilled Pysarenko’s vision of symbolizing a message of peace and hope he anticipated the boys might help deliver to the world and to those following the tournament from afar.
“The people in Ukraine, they send us messages, thank us, wish us good luck, whether they suffer with us or support us. It’s like a piece of color in their darkness,” Pysarenko said. “These kids bring joy.”
The Ukrainians return to the ice on Friday, when they face the Vermont Flames Academy in a Class AA elimination game. They would then need to win two more elimination games on Saturday in order to advance to play in the championship on Sunday.
Win or lose, the team is already scheduled to leave for Europe on Monday. Difficult as that might be, the validation for Selects officials is having accomplished their objective in providing the boys a brief respite from the troubles at home.
Since arriving in Quebec City in early February, the Selects have been embraced by the community, touring the city, playing street hockey and pickup basketball games, while also enjoying a shopping spree at a sports equipment store.
Another highlight came Tuesday, when they were special guests of the Montreal Canadiens for a game against the Chicago Blackhawks. After meeting with Montreal players in the morning, and issued Canadiens jerseys, the boys watched the game from a pair of suites. They received a standing ovation from the crowd upon being shown on the video scoreboard, danced along to the music during breaks and gorged themselves on chocolate chip cookies.
“I think they didn’t realize at first that it’s all real. I think they’re thinking they’re still dreaming,” said Selects assistant coach Andrii Lupandin, whose son Denys scored two goals in a 3-1 tournament-opening win last weekend.
“I think they forgot about all the bad stuff that’s happening back home, and for three hours during the game, they just being kids, finally, how they’re supposed to be and not thinking about if I’m going to hear some bombs dropping on my head,” he added.
Lupandin could briefly forget, too. He and his family have spent the past two months living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, after their home in Ukraine was decimated.
For Lupandin, this trip represented a chance to introduce his son to the same tournament he competed in, along with Pysarenko, and helped a team from Kharkiv win a championship in 1992.
Their hosts that year: the family of Sean Berube, now a successful local businessman who handled the diplomatic paperwork this time to gain visas and spent some $20,000 of his own money crisscrossing Europe assembling the Selects.
“If it wasn’t for him, none of these kids probably would be here,” Lupandin said. “So for me, it’s just to know there are people like Sean still there and still want to help and help with their own heart, nothing expected back.”
It was nothing, Berube said.
“We would have never imagined this becoming so perfect,” Berube said. “For them to be on the red carpet with the Montreal Canadiens, I mean, you could see it their eyes. The boys’ eyes were completely glowing.”
The Selects playing days might not be over. Berube said they’ve already been invited to play in a European tournament while he is fielding offers to participate in other events.
Selects forward Zahar Kovalenko called this an experience he’ll never forget, including playing the tournament-opening game in front of a near-capacity crowd of 18,000.
“I haven’t ever seen a lot of people in our match. In Ukraine, we had like maximum 20 people,” Kovalenko said of Saturday’s game when the Selects and Junior Bruins celebrated arm in arm before and afterward.
Knowing only a couple of his teammates upon arriving for training camp in Romania last month, Kovalenko has picked up a number of new friends along the way. Aside from bonding with his teammates, there’s the child of his billet family he refers to now as his brother, and friends he’s made with other teams, including the Junior Bruins who he is now following on social media.
“Yeah, four guys. I just talked to them. What’s your name? How long they play hockey and everything about it,” Kovalenko said, referring to the Boston players. “Before Canada, I knew maximum seven guys. And right now, I have eight new friends from my team.”
Kovalenko can now count a few Canadiens players among them.
“Over there, you don’t know if a bomb will fall close by, so it’s tough to walk in their shoes,” Canadiens forward Alex Belzile said. “We were happy to see them.”
The Canadian Press contributed to this report.
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