March 4th, 2024

New Ukrainian squad heads to Quebec’s famous international peewee hockey tournament

By Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press on February 1, 2024.

One year after a group of Ukrainian preteen hockey players took the Quebec International Peewee Hockey Tournament by storm, a new group of kids are expected to arrive in the province at the end of the week. Vermont Flames Academy and Ukraine team Selects peewee team stand together at the end of a game in Quebec City, Friday, February 17, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

MONTREAL – One year after a group of preteen Ukrainian hockey players became the darlings of the Quebec International Peewee Hockey Tournament, a new team of children fleeing Russia’s invasion are expected in the provincial capital this week.

Quebec City businessman Sean Bérubé and a group of volunteers are helping to make the magic happen again, after last year’s squad captured international headlines and played to a sold-out Videotron Centre. Team Ukraine Select won two games before their surprising run ended against a team from Vermont.

And while he doesn’t think this year’s team will receive the same reception, Bérubé said the players are still excited for a chance to take part in the storied hockey tournament.

“It’s too bad for the team this year because they’re going through the same thing as the players from last year, they’re going through the same hard times,” Bérubé said of the likelihood that the novelty has worn off Team Ukraine Select.

“It’ll be an experience for them no matter what,” he added.

“These kids are living in war and so they’re going to be able to – for a few weeks – get a moment of peace.”

For Bérubé, who played minor hockey as a teen in Ukraine, helping bring young players to Quebec is a chance to give back. Last year, he hunted out players who were spread across Europe, seeking refuge from the war against Russia.

This year, recruiting was a lot easier. “With how the team performed last year and how back in Ukraine a lot of people had been talking about it, it was not very difficult,” he said.

More than half the team are still living in Ukraine. Players were collected by bus and taken to Romania for training camp three times since the end of September.

“A lot of families at the beginning, the mothers and the kids went overseas as refugees and probably after a year or so, they started to come back and even though there’s a war in Ukraine, they learn to live with it,” Bérubé said.

But Bérubé said their stories are the same – players who have fathers ordered to the front lines or who perished in the fighting.

“We’ve got players with their dad is in the army; we have players who had to share their death certificate when I did the visa application,” Bérubé said.

“It’s tough to say, but it’s normal.”

The players, including one girl, have been hard at work in Romania, where the final group of 19 have been training with their coach, Evgheniy Pysarenko.

If all goes well, the team should fly to Quebec City on Friday.

The visa process was more complicated than last year because the federal government’s special authorization for Ukrainians for emergency travel expired in July. Canadian officials in Romania have said travel documents will be available by Thursday, Bérubé said.

Players will stay with host families and volunteers in Quebec City. Also eagerly awaiting their arrival are a half-dozen Ukrainian children from last year’s peewee team who ended up returning to Quebec City to attend an English high school and play hockey.

Bérubé said the players living in Quebec are doing great; most have picked up English, he said, and have become acclimated to their adoptive home.

He also started a foundation, Mission Druzhba, that is raising funds and selling jerseys to ensure a team from Ukraine can come each year the war continues.

Patrick Dom, general manager of the Quebec tournament that welcomes teams of players aged 11 and 12, said last year’s Ukrainian team brought the “biggest buzz ever” to the city.

“It’s going to be good (this year), we’re not going to relive last year and that’s normal,” Dom added. “I think people are going to be extremely united with this team again, but I don’t think we’ll see a packed Videotron Centre this year, though we’d like that.”

The 64th edition of the Quebec International Peewee Hockey tournament includes 120 teams from 18 countries and will run from Feb. 7 to Feb. 18. The Ukrainian squad is scheduled to play their first game on Feb. 11.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2024.

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