Ukrainian under-25 national hockey team prepares to face-off against U of Manitoba Bisons in Winnipeg

Members of the Ukrainian under-25 national hockey team held a practice at Subway Arena in Winnipeg on Saturday. The practice comes ahead of Monday's game against the University of Manitoba Bisons at Canada Life Centre. (Gary Solilak/CBC - image credit)
Members of the Ukrainian under-25 national hockey team held a practice at Subway Arena in Winnipeg on Saturday. The practice comes ahead of Monday's game against the University of Manitoba Bisons at Canada Life Centre. (Gary Solilak/CBC - image credit)

Members of the Ukrainian under-25 national hockey team are set to face-off against the University of Manitoba Bisons at Winnipeg's Canada Life Centre on Monday in the final game of their Hockey Can't Stop tour.

Seven thousand tickets for the event have been claimed and 4,000 ticket-holders are of Ukrainian descent, said Aleksandra Slatvytska, head of the tour.

The team has received warm welcomes from Canadians, Ukrainian refugees, as well as Canadians of Ukrainian descent, she said.

"For most of them, it's not only about hockey. It's more about the support and showing that they're willing to help," she said at a Saturday news conference.

The Ukrainian hockey team is in Canada to play against four university teams in the Canada West conference as they prepare to compete in the Winter World University Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., from Jan. 12-22.

Men ages 18 to 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine without special permission, but players who made the country's under-25 national team have received military exemptions to compete in the United States.

"Everyone of us is trying to do our best with what we have here," said Slatvytska. "Most people cannot imagine how many people are dying everyday [in Ukraine]."

'A miracle for most of us'

They've already played against teams from the University of Saskatchewan, University of Calgary and University of Alberta.

"It's really some kind of a miracle for most of us," said Gleb Krivoshapkin, a forward on the Ukrainian team.

Most players have never been to the homeland of hockey before, or played in an NHL arena, he said.

"Honestly, I'm just excited to feel that moment and be in the atmosphere," he said of Monday's game. "I don't think that it can feel like a home game, but I think that the number of [Ukrainian] fans will help us."

Gary Solilak/CBC
Gary Solilak/CBC

But the war in Ukraine still weighs heavy on their minds.

"Mentally, it's pretty hard because I'm on the phone with my parents, who are still there in Ukraine," said Krivoshapkin. "They always say they are OK — of course they will say that, but I know what is going on there."

Coaches are helping the players stay strong, he said, and the tour has had a positive impact on his family's mood in Ukraine.

"Because of this tour, because of these games, they have positive emotions," he said. "My father is not sleeping at night. He's watching the games."

Gary Solilak/CBC
Gary Solilak/CBC

Profits from ticket sales will go to the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, which provides assistance to humanitarian groups in Ukraine and Canada.

It will disperse the majority of funds to Save Ukrainian Hockey Dream, a charitable foundation operated by the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine, with the assistance of the International Ice Hockey Federation.

Head coach Vadym Shakharaichuk said the tour is a good experience for the young players. While they've lost their first three games, he hopes on Monday that the Ukrainian team will "take everything and put it on the ice for the win."

Although many Ukrainians were marking Orthodox Christmas on Saturday, Slatvytska said the national team's hockey tour is not about celebration.

"For us, right now is not about the holidays," she said. "We need to do our best over here. Our best is to play hockey."

Slatvytska said she hopes the tour is the start of a special hockey relationship between Canada and Ukraine.

"I hope that this tour not only helps to fundraise, but also I really hope with all my heart that it's going to be the beginning for hockey relationships between Ukraine and Canada for many years to come."