Quebec City's Sean Bérubé has spent dozens of hours over the past three months helping a Ukrainian hockey team.
It all started back in March 2022, not long after the Russian invasion.
At the time, Bérubé, who played hockey in Ukraine for four years in the 90s, was back there trying to get his former coach out of the country.
With the help of an old teammate, Yevhenii Pysarenko, Bérubé managed to get the coach and his family out of Ukraine and to Quebec — where they have been staying with him.
To thank Pysarenko for his aid, Bérubé offered to buy him a beer.
Instead, he says Pysarenko asked for a slightly bigger favour — support in getting a Ukrainian hockey team to Canada for the Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament.
"I kind of joked it off and I said if you want to bring a team, it's going to have to be a team of refugees," recalled Bérubé.
"I didn't think he was that serious … but I think the project grew in him and at some point he started to organize camps over there during the summer just for Ukrainians."
Three months ago, the dream started to come true when the tournament authorized the Ukrainian team's participation.
Since then it's been a rush of paperwork, visa applications and getting parental consent for a group of 17 Ukrainian 12-year-old boys who are scattered across Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania, Germany and Canada.
Dreaming of playing in Canada
Pysarenko first had the idea of forming a hockey team when the war broke out in Ukraine in February 2022.
"I tried to help as much as possible, kids and former colleagues," said Pysarenko. "That gave me an idea to bring them together to play some tournaments."
Pysarenko had his sights set specifically on Quebec City's peewee tournament, an internationally renowned competition he participated in as a player decades ago.
He slowly began to find players through his own contacts and recommendations from other coaches.
With the kids scattered around the globe, some still in Ukraine and some in surrounding countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic, practising was a challenge.
Two weeks ago they held a tryout and training session in Romania. He says there's excitement among the boys, who will have another practice on Jan. 28.
"Any hockey kids, they dream to play in Canada and everybody knows about the [Quebec] peewee tournament in Ukraine. They want to show Ukraine is a strong country," says Pysarenko.
"They will go to Canada and show to everybody that we still play hockey. It's like a miracle."
'Thank God we had hockey'
Bérubé notes that if the boys do make it to the tournament, it will be less about winning and more about enjoying the opportunity.
"It's about being there for the experience … To get out of the war and live this experience," said Bérubé, who is the team's representative with Immigration Canada.
He says when kids experience tragedy, it's important for them to have an outlet and things to look forward to. Bérubé knows that first-hand. His sons lost their mom in August.
"I believe in sport therapy and I have seen it with my two sons … for them to get back to the arena after what happened with their mother," said Bérubé. "Thank God we had hockey."
The Ukrainian players are dealing with a unique set of challenges, said Bérubé. Just recently, he heard that one of the players' fathers died while serving in the military. Other kids' families don't have electricity, complicating the visa application and paperwork process.
"I've asked all the parents to send me pictures of their birth certificate, all their passports, all the information and basically I don't know how many hours I must have spent. Like 50-plus hours," estimated Berube.
Tournament staff 'talking every day with Immigration Canada'
Patrick Dom, general manager of the peewee tournament, is confident things will work out.
"We are still in the process of getting the visas for all the kids and the adults but, you know, we're talking every day with Immigration Canada and we hope that all the visas are going to be delivered soon," said Dom. "It's a long process but we are very confident to get the team here."
Dom notes that if the visas come through in time for the February tournament, the Ukrainians will be billeted in local homes and welcomed with open arms.
"The first time when they will get here on the ice, we just want to get the Videotron centre here in Quebec City full, packed of people to show them how much we love them," said Dom. "We stand with them."