Curlers face off to support Lachine's Ukranian community

Coach Martin Vaillancourt says the five teens from Ukraine have shown lots of progress on the ice, but what is most important is that they have fun. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC - image credit)
Coach Martin Vaillancourt says the five teens from Ukraine have shown lots of progress on the ice, but what is most important is that they have fun. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC - image credit)

At the Lachine's Curling Club, a team of teenage Ukrainian refugees slide a curling stone across the ice and sweep it toward their target.

It's their first game of the tournament, and the boys are giving it their best shot. The prize: first place in the Ukraine Cup, a fundraising tournament to raise money for refugee and humanitarian aid, which will be donated to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. George in Montreal's Lachine borough.

Stephanie Berger is one of the organizers behind the competition.

After dropping off a car-load of food donations to a Ukrainian refugee — Maryna Kuchr, a mother of two teens — Berger developed a friendship with the woman and suggested she bring her children to curl at the club, free of charge.

It started with two boys and then became five — the number required to form an official curling team — as more Ukrainian mothers wanted to get their kids involved in the sport.

"This is definitely an opportunity for us to keep shining a light on the difficult times that Ukrainian refugees are having here and how we can all help them with resources that we have at our own fingertips," said Berger.

As part of the fundraiser, the mothers of the five boys are preparing Ukrainian specialties for dinner.

But aside from raising money for the church, the goal is also to forge connections between Lachine and the Ukrainian community.

Rowan Kennedy/CBC
Rowan Kennedy/CBC

Sliding and sweeping to victory 

Semen Kuchr had never curled before coming to Canada one year ago. His mother, Maryna,  made the move with him, but his father stayed in Ukraine to fight against the Russians.

At first, Kuchr says he wasn't all that excited to curl, but he and his younger brother quickly took a liking to the game after giving it a try.

"It's very cool," he said. "I like it."

And today, they kicked off their first tournament game with the sweet taste of victory.

Practising gymnastics in his native land has helped him here on the ice, he says, but the thing he enjoys most is spending time with his friends.

One of those friends is Marko Brunko, whom Kuchr met in Ukraine several years ago.

Now, the pair have reunited both at the curling club and at school.

Rowan Kennedy/CBC
Rowan Kennedy/CBC

Community beyond sport

From sliding stones to sweeping, coach Martin Vaillancourt, has been teaching the boys the basics.

Only one of the five had curled before.

The boys have made a lot of progress on the ice, but Vaillancourt — who speaks to them in French to help them ease into life in Quebec — says it's not about competition.

"They're united together," he said with a smile. "It's a nice little group."

Berger agrees. Learning a new sport in a new language brings its share of challenges, but she has been impressed with them showing up early every Saturday morning for practice.

She is "wholeheartedly rooting for the Ukrainian boys," she said.

"It is important to not just put a smile on their faces, but to take their minds off of what's happening. [Semen and his brother's] father is on the front lines, and he's been wounded twice," said Berger.

Beyond sport, curling is a way to connect with Canadian culture in their new home, far from the battle lines.

"Canadian culture really is in curling," said Berger. "We play in franglais here, so having them experiencing that too is really special.