At about 3 a.m on February 24, 2022, the phone rang and woke 19-year-old Dmytro Kubrytsky at his home in Kyiv. It was his girlfriend calling from Kherson, 650 kilometres to the south, where Russian missiles were exploding. He woke his mom to tell her the war had started, and a few minutes later he heard the first missiles rain down in Kyiv.
“The first day was really hard,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I went to the shop to buy some food because you don’t know what to do.”
I meet Kubrytsky in the Hall of Fame room at Rogers Place, where he is taking part in a press conference to promote a tour by Ukraine’s under-25 hockey team. He’s the team’s goalie, just off a 2-0 loss to the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. The Ukrainian team is on an unlikely tour of four Western Canadian universities, playing in preparation for the upcoming Winter World University Games, which start next week in Lake Placid, N.Y. They are in Edmonton to play the University of Alberta Golden Bears.
I don’t often get choked up at a press conference, but I do when I hear Kubrytsky and his compatriots tell their stories. Kubrytsky spoke of those uncertain early days of the war, as Russian troops advanced on Kyiv, and of the terror of air raid sirens, explosions and rolling blackouts. His mother and sister fled Ukraine for Lithuania early in the war, but are now back in the Ukrainian capital. “Should you tell me two years ago that I’d have a life like this, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Kubrytsky says.
The press conference includes the team’s coach, Vadym Shakharaichuk, defenceman Andrei Grygoriev and Oleksandra Slatvytska, the executive director of the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine, who is leading the trip. “Every one of us is going through unbelievable stress,” she says. “Sometimes we say we are getting used to that, but nobody gets used to such things as this war brings us and nobody can really see what the consequences will be afterwards.”
Slatvytska is travelling with her young son, since her husband is in the army. The boy is asleep in one of the chairs. She says he’s exhausted from all the travel, and that he even slept through his first NHL game. “For many players it’s really hard to focus just on the game,” she says. “Yesterday we received a note that the ice rink in Druzhkivka was fired on by a missile and totally destroyed. It was the home ice rink for many of us.”
The Oilers 50/50 raffle through January 7 will go to support the Canada-Ukraine Foundation in providing humanitarian assistance in Ukraine.
In fact, Russia has bombed no fewer than five hockey rinks in Ukraine, a country that doesn’t have many to begin with. The Ukrainian army has commandeered others to serve as weapons depots. The six senior men’s teams still in the country play out of just three rinks because they are only allowed to play if there are enough nearby bomb shelters. “Games get interrupted by security sirens and have to stop and everybody heads to the bomb shelters,” says Slatvytska.
She says it was a “crazy idea” to put together a Ukrainian team for Lake Placid, and that it’s a miracle this tour has come together. Early in the war, the Ukrainian federation arranged to send more than 1,000 young players out of the country, to France, Poland, Switzerland, Sweden and more, to get them away from the war and allow them to continue playing hockey. From that diaspora, and with the support of the International Ice Hockey Federation, the NHL and corporate sponsors, the federation has worked to keep Ukrainian national teams going in the world championship systems.
When asked about the idea of young men playing hockey rather than serving in the Ukrainian army, Slatvytska says the team has the support of Ukrainians. “Everyone should be inspired by something, and for many hockey is inspiration,” she says. “The fact that they are playing inspires others to continue fighting.”
Kubrytsky agrees. “For what are our soldiers fighting? The main thing is to have a regular life, peace,” he says. “So many hockey and football fans went to war but are still cheering for us. We do it to build their spirit.”
A month ago, Kubrytsky moved to Dauphin, Manitoba, where he is being billeted and playing for the Dauphin Kings of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. He hopes to go to a Canadian university, but his heart remains in Ukraine. “You always think about how to go back home,” he says. “Even me, after the season, I need to go back home.”
The Edmonton Oilers and Oilers Entertainment Group have supported the Ukrainian team’s tour. The Oilers 50/50 raffle through January 7 will go to support the Canada-Ukraine Foundation in providing humanitarian assistance in Ukraine.
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