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Hockey team of preteen Ukrainian refugees arrives in Quebec City for tournament

Their coach described the team’s presence at noted peewee tourney as ‘almost a miracle’
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Ukrainian peewee hockey player Zahar Kovalenko carries his bag as head coach Evgheniy Pysarenko walks behind as they arrive, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, at the Videotron Centre in Quebec City. The Ukraine team will compete at the Quebec international peewee tournament. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

A team of preteen Ukrainian refugees that have been scattered across Europe by war arrived Wednesday in Quebec City, where they’ll get the chance to compete in a renowned hockey tournament.

The team of 11- and 12-year-olds landed in Montreal before being bused to the provincial capital ahead of next week’s Quebec International Peewee Hockey Tournament, which has been attended in the past by all-time greats such as Wayne Gretzky and Guy Lafleur.

The bleary-eyed team arrived at the Videotron Centre in Quebec City, where they were greeted by the local families who will host them during their stay. The team, who wore hats and jackets bearing the Ukrainian flag, had a chance to look at the ice, where thousands of people are expected to gather in the stands to watch them play.

Coach Evgheniy Pysarenko described the team’s presence in Quebec City as “almost a miracle.”

“Before it was mission impossible, now it’s miracle on ice,” he said.

Pysarenko told reporters at the hockey arena that it will be hard for players to forget the war in Ukraine, where some have fathers that are on the front lines fighting the Russian invasion.

But he hopes they’ll leave the tournament with lifelong memories and the belief that “anything is possible.”

The team, he added, are “messengers of hope,” and symbols of “spirit, strength and solidarity.”

Twelve-year-old Maksym Kukharenko, whose hometown is Kyiv, has been living in the Czech Republic. He said the trip to Canada was “very long,” but that he’s excited to play.

“It’s very cool that I’m going to this country and this city,” he said.

His teammate, also named Maksym, said the tournament is “a chance for us to show ourselves to other teams in America, in Canada.”

The team’s improbable journey comes after months of effort by Pysarenko and a Quebec City businessman, who had to sort out visas and arrange travel for players who were displaced by war and living in countries across Europe.

At least one boy is originally from Kherson, which spent months under Russian occupation, and others are from Odesa, which has been bombed.

The Ukrainian team will have some time to settle in before they’re scheduled to take to the ice at the Videotron Centre on Feb. 11 to play the Junior Bruins from Massachusetts.

Patrick Dom, the general manager of the tournament, said the last few months have been a “roller-coaster of emotions,” filled with doubts about whether the team would make it.

Given what they’ve been through, Dom said he has few expectations for how they’ll perform on the ice. But in this case, the final score isn’t the point.

“When they go back to their country or wherever they’re coming from, they will say, ‘there were 15,000 people cheering, wearing white shirts for peace’” he said.

“They will remember this for the rest of their lives. That’s what we want.”

The tournament runs Feb. 8-19.

—Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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