Russia-Ukraine war and hockey inextricably linked in Alberta

Russia-Ukraine war hockey
Gerry Thomas/Getty Images

VEGREVILLE, Alberta — 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.

“The whole community here is so tight,” he said. “It’s a small town, and everybody knows everybody.”

An hour’s drive west on Alberta Highway 16A, the Ukrainian community in Edmonton is larger but still just as tight.

Along the way, the red and white maple leaf flags blowing in the wind leave no doubt this is Canada, but every few kilometers there’s a nod to the native homeland of many in the area. Outside the gate of the Ukrainian Cultural village is a yellow sign reading, “Stand With Ukraine. On the edge of one farm outside Edmonton, a lone blue and yellow flag of Ukraine stands out on the snowswept prairie.

At Stawnichy’s Mundare Sausage House in the Alberta capital, Russia’s invasion is on the minds of everyone, from third-generation Ukrainian owner Colette Hennig and nephew Kyler Zeleny to the deli and restaurant’s employees. Sitting in her office next to a photo of her with Wayne Gretzky, who traces his family’s roots to Ukraine, Hennig gathers pins, scarves and candles to sell; they’ve already gone through every flag available in the area.

Customers share their stories of friends and family back home attempting to avoid the bombs and gunfire and escape to Europe or North America. There’s nothing more Ukrainian-Canadian than perogy poutine, and Zeleny is considering renaming the dish “Less Putin More Poutine” with proceeds going to a humanitarian foundation.

“The staff were discussing it that it’s even hard on them, although they don’t have anybody over there that they know — just hearing all the stories because everybody seems to have a connection,” said Hennig, who added that $10,000 has already been raised to help efforts in Ukraine. “It’s overwhelming, really, how everybody’s coming together. I just wish it didn’t have to be for this.”

The family had Oilers tickets during the franchise’s glory days of the 1980s and early ’90s when it won the Stanley Cup five times as hockey’s last real dynasty. Zeleny prepared to go to the game that night against the Washington Capitals planning to boo Alex Ovechkin, who has long voiced his support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Zeleny and his aunt don’t blame Ovechkin for limiting his statements about Ukraine, given the near-impossible situation the star winger has been put in with his wife, children and parents in Russia and concern over their safety. But that did not stop the booing from pockets of Rogers Place each time Ovechkin touched the puck.

The jeers came loudly from a suite featuring members of the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress and others. But it’s less vitriol at Ovechkin than the situation itself, which has become a rallying point inside and outside hockey rinks.

“A lot of that negativity and a lot of the sadness and the heartbreak and the anger has been counterbalanced by this positivity and the support that’s around us,” foundation president Orest Sklierenko said. “And it’s all we can do from here to do these types of things.”

Helplessness is one of the prevailing emotions from Vegreville to Edmonton, where the war and response to it are part of so many conversations. The Oilers played the Ukrainian anthem before a previous game against the Montreal Canadiens and before facing the Capitals had the Viter Choir and Folk Ensemble sing the Canadian anthem in English and Ukrainian.

Oilers Entertainment Group executive VP of communications and gaming Tim Shipton, whose wife is of Ukrainian descent, said the cause meant a lot to the organization.

“We all know people in the community from Ukraine — it’s so woven into the fabric of Northern Alberta,” Shipton said. “We just wanted to play our small part in showing our support.”

Ivanyuk and Zeleny are among those already looking forward to the future and what the money raised will do to rebuild Ukraine after the war — whenever that is.

In the present, it’s not just about the money, and that was clear during and after one of Kozak Hockey’s games after the invasion began. Playing a disliked rival, the game had no penalties or cheap shots and the conversation in the parking lot after made it clear there was reverence and respect for the Ukrainian-Canadians.

“They said, ‘We know that we can be a certain way on the ice, but putting everything aside, this is unbelievable what’s happening,’” Kozak player Matt Karpiak said. “They said they feel for us, and they just wish nothing but the best for us and our families that are there.”

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    Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

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    Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

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    John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

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