Russia-Ukraine war and hockey inextricably linked in Alberta
VEGREVILLE, Alberta (AP) — Sergiy Ivanyuk didn’t sleep the first 10 nights. His mind is on his mother in his hometown of Kyiv and his girlfriend and her two children who are sheltering to stay safe amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
He wakes from what little rest he can muster and checks his phone each morning for the latest updates.
“You just shake,” he said. “It’s terrible.”
Ivanyuk is fresh off the ice after running practice for the junior hockey Vegreville Vipers. The team captain is 20-year-old fellow Ukrainian Mykyta Protsenko, whose sister remains in Ukraine, and the members of this tight-knit community of 5,700 people with heavy ties to his homeland are working to get her out.
Hockey can’t solve their problems or end the war that stirs up anger, disbelief and grief among those in Northern Alberta, one of the biggest centers of Ukrainian heritage and culture in the world. But the sport is the backbone of the community, equal parts refuge from the horror and rallying point for people who can’t help but feel helpless about a crisis thousands of miles away.
“Sometimes it’s hard,” said Protsenko, a native of the hard-hit city of Kharkiv who is one of the top players for Vegreville in the Can-Am Junior Hockey League. “Sometimes you’re focused, sometimes you’re not. It all depends. Every day brings something new. Town helps and team helps and everybody helps how they can help.”
In Ukrainian-Canadian communities in Alberta, hockey is a welcome constant. From the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames down to youth leagues, teams are playing the Ukrainian anthem, raising funds for humanitarian and military aid, and trying to use the sport for whatever good they can.
Members of Vegreville’s under-18 team asked minor hockey association president Tina Warawa if they could play the Ukrainian anthem before “O Canada” at games. She noticed a couple of players tearing up while listening to the song.
“They said: ’We get to stand here today at our age and play hockey and enjoy this game. There’s kids the same age as us in Ukraine that are picking up a weapon and they’re fighting for their country and their lives,’” she recalled. “They’re absolutely understanding the gravity of what’s going on.”
The Vipers have a half-dozen players of Ukrainian descent, along with Protsenko. Warawa and town officials are also trying to figure out a way to bring Protsenko’s 16-year-old sister to Canada. Vipers general manager Bryan Brown said, “We really don’t know what to do for him but support him.”
Protsenko’s biggest focus is sharing information and battling misinformation online.
“It is so weird to see your hometown being bombed and you’re just watching the news and it’s like, oh, I’ve been to that house. Oh, that’s my friend’s house,“ he said. ”Or I’ve been walking with my grandmother there. It’s so weird to see that, and it’s so terrifying.”
Ivanyuk said he saw video of an missile-hit area in Kyiv that was home to the arena where he began playing hockey.
“I was just crying,” he said.
Coaching is the 44-year-old’s escape.
“When you’re on the ice, you just concentrate on hockey,” Ivanyuk said. “You just go in a different world, and you just put everything to the side. And when you (are done), you just come back and start working, start thinking, start helping and stuff like that.”
Few know better about the support of the Ukrainian-Canadian community in Alberta than Ivanyuk, who moved to Edmonton in April 2011 with little money and no ability to speak English. He slept in his car and endured subzero temperatures, read books to learn the language and was welcomed with open arms when he went to the local Ukrainian church seeking help.
Within a week of arriving, he had a place to sleep, eat and shower, and he found work in Calgary to get his Canadian dream on track. Now he pays it forward by giving advice to younger Ukrainians who move there, while also making his impact on hockey by coaching.