Hours before the calendar turned on one of the darkest years in his nation’s history, a bomb landed 100 metres from Savva Serdiuk’s Kyiv-area home.
It shattered the windows and shook his parents and girlfriend to the core.
“Today was probably the scariest day of the war for me,” said the 18-year-old of a blast sent as part of Russia’s heightened attacks New Year’s Eve.
“They just called me and said they’re okay, and to not worry about them.”
Easier said than done.
Serdiuk received their emotional call from the safety of his Calgary hotel room, doing little to calm him as he chases his hockey dreams a world away.
A goaltender who recently backstopped Ukraine at the world junior 1B championships, Serdiuk is now touring through western Canada with the Ukrainian U-25 club as part of its Hockey Can’t Stop Tour.
Games against four Canadian universities this week are serving as a warmup to the upcoming World University Games in Lake Placid, NY, while doubling as a fundraiser through the Canada/Ukraine Foundation.
Men aged 18 to 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine without special permission, but players who made the country's U-25 national team have received military exemptions to compete in the tournament.
A 2-0 loss to the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon last week was punctuated by a stirring ovation from a sold out crowd that was yet another reminder of the love and support Canadians have provided Ukrainians since the Russian attacks started almost a year earlier.
On Saturday they received a similar welcome at a packed Saddledome where the players were guests of the Flames. Provided with a suite and jerseys from the club, the players waved to the crowd and took pictures as their tour was announced.
“It made me emotional because it means a lot for me as a Ukrainian hockey player that Canadians are supporting us,” beamed Serdiuk.
“We are feeling the love from Canadians every day. It feels really, really nice. I just love Canadians.”
The warmth and money being generated on their trip is a welcome diversion for the country’s best young players, whose practices back home are interrupted daily by electricity blackouts, water shortages and air raid warning sirens that prompt a quick end to their skate.
“At first it was really scary – they were bombing Kyiv and I was shaking with my parents,” said Serdiuk of a protocol that forces anyone within earshot of the sirens to immediately take cover in a bomb shelter or nearest subway station, often in full gear.
“I get used to it, but it’s really bad for all the people in Ukraine.”
Konstantin Simchuk is an assistant coach with the U-25 team, who runs the local Sokil Kyiv team, as well as the biggest hockey school in the nation – a school that saw 300 of its 450 students flee the nation last February when the Russian attacks began.
A retired goaltender who represented Ukraine in the 2002 Olympics and eight world championships, he feels it’s important to provide some semblance of normalcy for the country’s top players with an eye on maintaining a program that can still provide plenty of national pride and hope moving forward.
“We look forward to when it’s all finished and we start rebuilding hockey rinks - we have hope this will happen, but when and how long it’s going to take for a rebuild nobody knows,” said the 48-year-old, whose country has lost almost half its arenas to bombings.
“I’m very nervous right now because I left my wife and 11-year-old daughter back home.
“It’s all so crazy – on Feb 24 you wake up in the morning and somebody is bombing your city, your country, and attacking your kids and families.
“I don’t know if you can understand this, but today we kind of get used to it. It’s terrible.”
He said the goodwill shown by Canadians has been stirring.
“When the national anthem was going on I’m almost crying,” he said of the game in Saskatoon.
“For us right now this is very important. Very emotional.”
Aleksandra Slatvytska is the CEO of the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine and insists that through all the upheaval it’s so important to continue striving for a sense of normalcy.
“We still want to save sport in general - we have 4,000 players under 25, so we are obliged to save their game,” said Slatvytska whose team plays the University of Calgary Monday, the University of Alberta Tuesday and the University of Manitoba Jan. 9 at Canada Life Centre.
“As a sports lawyer it’s really important right now to focus on daily affairs if you want to keep living.
“We hope to keep national teams in the IIHF world championship and raise our flag and show we’re still independent and we deserve to make choices by ourselves with what we are doing with our country and our land.”
The money raised on their tour will go towards repairing arenas lost in the conflict, as well as helping displaced Ukrainians.
“They need to continue to fight for their country - there are 20 boys who represent 40 million people,” said Slatvytska.
“People need to see their country still exists and we have chances to win because we have such support.”
While the country’s hope is for a return to normalcy, these young men are being provided a chance to continue striving for so much more, as they pursue hockey dreams threatened by Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
No surprise, they have strong feelings about a Russian like Alex Ovechkin, a well-known Putin supporter.
“I don’t like Alex Ovechkin and my friends feel the same,” said Serdiuk, as a passing team support staffer echoed the sentiment in much harsher terms.
“I don’t like him because he’s supporting the war, that’s for sure. He’s supporting Putin, and it’s just terrible.
“I don’t know why he’s playing in the NHL right now.
“They should ban him, 100%.”
Their frustration is understandable.
Their resilience is to be admired.
Reprinted with the author’s permission from Sportsnet. See the original here.
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter