An international community is coming together to provide a group of young Ukrainian men a chance to compete on the ice in Canada.
“I’m very happy to go to Canada to play against some of the best teams there,” Ukrainian goalie Savva Serdiuk told reporters.
Serdiuk and his fellow Ukraine U25 men’s national hockey team will be coming to Canada in the coming months to play against four western Canada university teams in the “Hockey Can’t Stop Tour,” as preparation for an upcoming tournament and to raise money for their war-torn country.
Alberta is home to one of the largest Ukrainian expat populations in Canada and the world.
Serdiuk, 18, also backstops Sokil Kyiv in the Ukrainian Hockey League.
When Russian forces invaded Ukraine, Kyiv was among the targets in the first round of airstrikes on Feb. 24.
And on Wednesday, another aerial assault knocked out power and water for most Ukrainians in the country.
“My team Sokil has practiced almost every day. We don’t have electricity sometimes and water and stuff like that,” Serdiuk said. “So it’s pretty hard to practice in Ukraine.”
The Canadian tour is a rare opportunity for the young Ukrainian men. With the Russian invasion entering its tenth month, most men in Ukraine aged 18 to 60 are not allowed to leave the country without permission from the federal government.
Dmitri Khristich, Ukraine’s assistant coach and former NHLer, said in addition to escaping the war-torn country for a time, the tour is an opportunity for his players to show their skill at hockey.
“From all respects, it’s a really good opportunity for us to show Ukraine hockey is still alive, Ukraine hockey has a future,” Khristich said.
Head coach Vadym Shakhraychuk, who represented Ukraine at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, added the U25 team represents a new vision of Ukrainian hockey.
The war came as a surprise to the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine, who earlier this year was working to improve the sport in the European country. Part of those plans was to build 19 ice hockey rinks throughout the country.
“We really did believe that we could build hockey as an example to other kinds of sports, because in Ukraine… and most post-Soviet countries, it’s a huge different kind of difficulties for kids to have equal opportunities to go into any kind of sport,” executive director Oleksandra Slatvytska said.
“No one was expecting the war. No one was expecting that in one day all our lives were going to be changed forever.”
Only four arenas in the country are in working condition. Arenas in communities like Donetsk, Mariupol and Kherson have all fallen victim to the war.
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While being away from his family isn’t unfamiliar for the young pro, Serdiuk anticipates worrying about his family while he’s on Canadian soil.
“I’m really worried about my family because they’re in Kiev, Ukraine, and it’s still dangerous here. There is no water, there is no electricity, stuff like that, and it’s just really hard to live their life.”
Coaches for the four men’s hockey teams at the University of Alberta, University of Calgary, University of Manitoba and University of Saskatchewan have been in conversation with some of their players about hosting the Ukraine team.
Huskies head coach Brandin Cote said this is an opportunity for players to learn about what’s going on for their peers on the other side of the globe.
“We have no idea what it’s like over there. And so I just think any of the information that we can give our players to fully understand what the challenges are (in Ukraine),” Cote told reporters.
“To have opportunities for our players, to talk to the players on (the Ukrainian) team and really try to get a better understanding of what they went through or what they’re going through from a family level, from a sport level, is going to be really beneficial to our players moving forward in their lives, to really have an appreciation for what they have.”
University of Calgary Dinos head coach Mark Howell said his team’s leadership group was excited at the prospect of playing and helping players from Ukraine.
“They were humbled and really respectful of the opportunity, and I think it just allows them to reflect on how grateful they are to have what we have here and not have to worry about anything that’s going on over (in Ukraine),” Howell said.
The idea for the tour came when announcer Gord Miller had a conversation with Slatvytska in Edmonton at the World Junior Championship in August. Miller got on a conference call with the Canada West head coaches and was soon working on a schedule.
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Scheduling conflicts prevented the group from booking Rogers Place in Edmonton or the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, but the Winnipeg Jets executive chair Mark Chipman offered up Canada Life Centre.
“So that’s an exciting opportunity for the Ukrainian team to play in an NHL building and in front of what we hope is a huge crowd,” Miller said.
Serdiuk and his team will be playing games in four western Canadian cities, facing off against university men’s hockey teams in those cities:
- Dec. 30, 2022, vs. the University of Saskatchewan Huskies at Merlis Belsher Place.
- Jan. 2, 2023, vs. the University of Calgary Dinos at Father David Bauer Arena.
- Jan. 3, 2023, vs. the University of Alberta Golden Bears at Clare Drake Arena.
- Jan. 9, 2023, vs. the University of Manitoba Bisons at Canada Life Centre.
A live stream and donation links will also be available on the Canada West website.
Funds from the four games will be going to humanitarian efforts in Ukraine and Canada, as well as a foundation run by the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine.
From there, the Ukrainian team will play in the Winter University Games in Lake Placid, New York, until Jan. 23.
Until then, Serdiuk will continue to practice his trade, where and when he can.
“It’s kind of an escape for me. It’s probably one of the best things in my life. And when I come into practice every morning, I feel like I’m in a safe place with my friends.”
–with files from the Associated Press and The Canadian Press
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