A 14-year-old hockey player from Ukraine is getting back to the game he loves with help from a coach and team in southwest Saskatchewan.
Misha Shelipov says he was still practicing with his hockey team in Kharkiv the day before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.
"My mother said, 'The war has started.' And to come home," Shelipov said.
Fleeing bombs in their hometown of Dnipro, Shelipov said his family made their way to a smaller Ukrainian village before heading to Poland.
WATCH | Saskatchewan town helps a teen from Ukraine get back on the ice:
From there, they contacted a hockey agent in Switzerland. That connection led Shelipov to Barret Kropf in Caronport, Sask., a village of around 1,000 people located 24 kilometres northwest of Moose Jaw, Sask.
"We got word there's a player that was looking to keep playing hockey and and find his way to Canada," Kropf said.
"So we put our hands up and said, 'Yeah, we'd love to have him be part of our program."
Kropf, who is originally from Estevan, Sask., was hired last June as the general manager and U15 prep head coach at Prairie Hockey Academy, Saskatchewan's first Hockey Canada accredited school, based in Caronport.
Kropf started a GoFundMe to help with the relocation, and used Ottawa's fast-track system to get Shelipov and his mother, Zina, to Canada within the calendar year.
"His first question when we picked him up at the airport, in Regina on Dec. 18, was, 'Coach, when can I go to practice?' He eats, sleeps, and breathes hockey," Kropf said.
Shelipov's mother now works at the local village bakery while the teen has started practising and playing with the U15 prep team.
"It's a very good team and I like my friends here," said Shelipov, who has found another reason to love his new country in the winter.
"In Canada, we can skate when we want. Like we can go to outdoor rink."
Teammate Kane Domres and his family hosted the Shelipovs for Christmas last year. Domres, who Shelipov calls his best friend, said the team has truly welcomed their newest forward.
"We're grateful to have him on the team. It's just a great experience," Domres said.
Shelipov made his game debut with the U15 team on Jan. 7 in Winnipeg. To mark his first contest in nearly a year, Shelipov's teammates sent him out for a rookie lap.
"It was special to see," Kropf said. "You can't knock the smile off his face."
'I like to play here'
Last Friday, the team celebrated with a friendly hockey game on an outdoor rink in Moose Jaw. It marked another Canadian first for Shelipov, who will play his second game this weekend in Edmonton.
"Hockey was born in Canada," he said. "I like to play here because it's harder, more body checks ... I like it."
His community is now rallying to reunite the whole family in Caronport. Shelipov's father and two younger sisters, who are one and nine years old, are currently awaiting permits to come to Canada.
Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and has caused Europe's fastest-growing refugee crisis since the Second World War. As of November 2022, four humanitarian flights had landed in Saskatchewan, bringing in approximately 3,000 Ukrainians up to that date.
Meanwhile, Shelipov and his mother have already settled in an apartment, with furniture donated by the surrounding community, preparing to accommodate the rest of the family once they're together again.