He fled Ukraine and just got to skate with this junior hockey club. Oh, he's 44

Maslov, right, with 67's director of player development Evan Brownrigg. (Jonathan Jobin/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Maslov, right, with 67's director of player development Evan Brownrigg. (Jonathan Jobin/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Andriy Maslov was a bit shaky on his blades and more than twice the age of the other players practising at TD Place Arena on Tuesday morning, but the broad grin behind the cage of his hockey helmet said it all.

"I feel great, fantastic, I cannot even explain what kind of emotion I've got in the moment," Maslov gushed during a lull. "It's unbelievable — I'm 44 years old and my dream comes true."

Maslov, his wife Tatiana and their teenage son Igor fled the Russian invasion of Ukraine last April and arrived in Ottawa, where elder son Alex is studying at Carleton University. The family is from the Black Sea city of Odesa, where Maslov captained merchant vessels.

Maslov said as a boy, he and his father loved watching the Canadian, American and Soviet hockey stars face off on TV. He and his friends played road hockey, but there were no ice facilities where he grew up.

Until Tuesday, he'd never even been on skates.

"All of a sudden I'm in the middle of Canada, and this is the motherland of ice hockey," Maslov said. "I still can't believe my eyes, what I'm doing at the moment."

Jonathan Jobin/Radio-Canada
Jonathan Jobin/Radio-Canada

Realtor got the puck rolling

Since arriving in the capital, the family has relied on the kindness of strangers like realtor Peggy Blair, who has helped match some 200 newcomers from Ukraine with host families in Ottawa.

When she learned last year that Maslov and his family needed furniture for their rented home, Blair issued an appeal on Twitter. "Literally within six hours we had his place furnished top to bottom," she told CBC on Tuesday.

Similarly, when Maslov mentioned his lifelong dream of playing hockey, Blair put the word out on social media. That grabbed the attention of Janice Barresi, executive director of the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group's charitable foundation, who passed it on to Marc St. Pierre, OSEG's director of community relations.

Before long, Maslov not only had an invitation to join the 67's on the ice at TD Place, but a full set of equipment — including one of the Ontario Hockey League team's famous barber pole jerseys.

"It really was his dream," said Blair, who had just received an email from Maslov thanking her for making it happen. "He was just thrilled."

A welcome distraction

Maslov probably won't receive an offer to play for the league-leading team — for one thing, he's missed the age cutoff by a couple decades. But for a first-timer, he put on an impressive performance.

"He picked it up pretty quick, actually. I was impressed," said Evan Brownrigg, the team's director of player development, who paired Maslov with defenceman Derek Smyth to work on his shooting skills.

"It definitely was a slower session than our normal stuff maybe, but it was just as enjoyable."

For Maslov, it was a welcome distraction from the situation back home, where the bloody war has now entered its 11th month and where ordinary Ukrainians continue to bear the brunt of Russia's indiscriminate attacks on civilian infrastructure.

"We are 24/7 non-stop watching the news, surfing the net, chasing what is the situation in Ukraine, and of course this is a really good opportunity to get rid of your [other] thoughts and relax a little bit," Maslov said.

While some of his current hockey heroes happen to be Russian, Maslov said he'd prefer not to mention their names.

"I don't want to say anything. They're great hockey players, but not in this situation," he said. "Hockey is just a game and we have to enjoy the hockey game."