Ukrainian Peewees playing through reminders of war at home

Feb 13, 2023, 2:55 AM | Updated: 7:17 pm
FILE -  Ukrainian peewee hockey team players and coaches pose for a group photo as they arrive, Wed...

FILE - Ukrainian peewee hockey team players and coaches pose for a group photo as they arrive, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023 at the Videotron Centre in Quebec City. The Ukraine team will compete at the Quebec international peewee hockey tournament. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

(Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

QUEBEC CITY (AP) — If Mykyta Staskevich needed another reminder of what his boys hockey team of Ukrainian refugees was playing for back home, it came in the poignant form of the nation’s flag unfolded in the locker room before its game against Romania on Monday.

In blue, representing the sky, were the nicknames of a player’s father and the father of a player’s friend, who have died on the front lines in the war with Russia. In yellow, representing the ground, were the nicknames of two of the player’s fathers — including Staskevich — who are still fighting.

Speaking in Ukrainian, Staskevich’s eyes welled as he provided an answer to what the flag symbolized.

“He wants Ukraine to win the war and to stop the war,” Ukrainian Selects coach Evgheniy Pysarenko said, translating his team’s captain. “Peace.”

The flag was brought to Pysarenko by one of the player’s parents, and served as both motivation and a poignant reminder of why the team is competing in the International Peewee Tournament in Quebec City. The Selects are more than just a hockey team of 11- and 12-year-olds. They’ve come to represent a symbol of peace and a far more hopeful future for a battle-torn nation nearly a year since Russia invaded Ukraine.

“You can imagine a kid, he saw the name of his father, and he start to cry. And the whole team come to him and give big hug. It was quiet a couple of minutes,” Pysarenko said, following a 2-0 victory over Team Romania Wolves.

“It was more than a hockey game,” he said. “This game we dedicated to these people.”

Tears turned to smiles by the end of the game, when Ivan Bilozerov capped the scoring by converting a rebound with 61 seconds remaining. And the excitement in the locker room grew when word got around that the Selects were boarding a bus headed for Montreal, where the team will be the special guests of the Canadiens for their game against Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night.

One of the team’s dreams was having a chance to attend an NHL game during what’s now growing into a three-week stay in Canada.

The Selects extended their stay by beating Romania in an elimination game. Maksym Kukharenko scored a power-play goal and Matvii Kulish earned the shutout (shot totals are not tracked at the tournament).

The Ukrainians, who have been celebrated around town since their arrival some two weeks ago, are three wins from clinching a spot in the tournament Class AA championship on Sunday. They advanced to play the Vermont Flames Academy on Friday.

“It’s a special story, special kids,” Pysarenko said of the resilience his players have shown. “They’re a lot more grown up than everyone else.”

The Selects blamed nerves and the pressure of playing in front of a near-capacity crowd of 18,000 blue-and-white flag-waving fans as a factor in their slow start to a tournament-opening 3-1 win over the Boston Junior Bruins. Ukraine overcame a 1-0 deficit by scoring three times in the final five minutes.

On Monday, the Selects had pre-game emotions to overcome.

This time, they got an early lead with Kukharenko scoring 4:37 into the 10-minute first period off a shot from the left point that appeared to deflect in off a Romanian defender. The Selects weren’t able to exhale until Bilozerov scored by slapping in a shot from the right circle.

The Ukrainians once again celebrated with a victory lap, while paying tribute to their supporters, who made up a majority of the fans who filled about half of the lower bowl of the arena.

A smaller contingent of Romanian fans were gathered in one section, and made their presence known with chants, songs and the banging of cowbells.

Tournament officials don’t release attendance figures, but the crowd on Monday was still far larger than the 20 or so people Selects forward Zahar Kovalenko said he was used to playing in front of in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian’s presence has placed a larger global spotlight on the 63-year-old tournament with the war in Ukraine showing signs of once again escalating. The Selects are regarded as symbol of peace for Ukraine and hope for a better future, and they’ve merited mention from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The matchup of teams from bordering nations featured several coincidences. Romania is where the Selects held training camp, because that’s where Pysarenko now lives, and began holding camps for players after watching many youth fleeing Ukraine with hockey equipment in tow.

And the Romanian team’s presence in the tournament stems from Pysarenko, who recommended to the nation’s hockey officials to seek sending a team to the Quebec City tournament four years ago.

“I know these kids and I saw them crying after the game and I was so sorry for them because I work with them, too. And know, personally them, and parents and coach,” Pysarenko said. “But the situation was we need this win probably more than them.”

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Ukrainian Peewees playing through reminders of war at home