UManitoba Bisons give Ukraine men's hockey team a warm-up ahead of World University Games in U.S.

Scores of fans stand during the national anthems ahead of the game at Canada Life Centre Monday night. (Gary Solilak/CBC - image credit)
Scores of fans stand during the national anthems ahead of the game at Canada Life Centre Monday night. (Gary Solilak/CBC - image credit)

Stands were packed at Canada Life Centre in downtown Winnipeg on Monday night, but the crowd wasn't there to see the Jets.

The University of Manitoba Bisons men's hockey team hosted the Ukrainian men's national hockey team for a special game as part of the Hockey Can't Stop Tour.

The initiative is raising money for the Canada-Ukraine Foundation to help with ongoing humanitarian efforts. It's also intended as a way for the Ukrainian team players to get some practice in ahead of the 2023 FISU Winter World University Games.

"It's been very difficult for them to train, to play, and this is what they love to do," said longtime Sportscaster Gord Miller, an organizer with the Hockey Can't Stop Tour.

"For them to be invited to the World University Games is a big honour. They didn't think they'd be able to go."

Emily Brass/CBC
Emily Brass/CBC

Last week, an arena in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine — which was doubling as a warehouse for humanitarian aid — was destroyed by a Russian missile strike.

The Ukrainian team played against the universities of Alberta and Saskatchewan in Calgary, Edmonton and Regina before taking on the Bisons in their fourth and final game. Next they'll head to the 2023 FISU Winter World University Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.

"The first few games have been very emotional," said Miller. "It's overwhelming for them in a lot of ways."

The Jets gave away 1,500 tickets for Ukrainian newcomers to take in the Winnipeg event Monday night.

Gary Solilak/CBC
Gary Solilak/CBC

Decked out in Ukrainian colours of blue and yellow, fan Alyssa Rempel said it was important for her to show up and show support. Some of her family is from Ukraine, she says, and she has loved ones there still. A cousin died in the war in February of last year.

"That's why visually supporting Ukrainians and also still being a presence here is so important to me," she said.

Ukrainian newcomer friends she's made volunteering with the Ukrainian National Federation Canada were also present and excited to take in the game, said Rempel.

"A lot of them haven't seen hockey games before, and so this is the largest venue that they've ever been in," she said.

"Even though I did go to U of M, I'll definitely cheer for Ukraine."

Gary Solilak/CBC
Gary Solilak/CBC

Oleh Blazhko arrived in Winnipeg from Ukraine five months ago.

"It's kind of an amazing place to live here," he said. "I don't really like the cold, but I'm getting used to it."

Blazhko says the moment he found out about the game he knew he had to attend. With a Ukrainian flag clenched in his hand, he said he planned to cheer "for the spirit of the Ukrainian people."

Gary Solilak/CBC
Gary Solilak/CBC

Volodmyr Sovinskyy moved to Canada from Ukraine 16 years ago. He planned to cheer for both.

"I want to say a big thank you," he said. "Thank you to everybody in Winnipeg, in Canada, in around the world. Thank you guys for your support for Ukraine."

Gary Solilak/CBC
Gary Solilak/CBC

Monday night was also special for Karen Schultz.

Her background is Ukrainian and she has family in Ukraine. Monday was also her 60th birthday.

And Schultz said her uncle is the late Ab McDonald, the first captain of the Jets in the late-1950s. His grandson was on the ice playing for the Bisons Monday night.

Gary Solilak/CBC
Gary Solilak/CBC

"It's devastating what's happening to their country," she said. "What a wonderful fundraiser."

Orest Stanovich said it meant a lot to him to see the team from his homeland competing internationally.

"It's very nice for our country, because now, it's very terrible," he said.

"That's why we are very happy that you, as a Canadian country, help us so much."

Gary Solilak/CBC
Gary Solilak/CBC

In a tweet posted later Monday evening, the Bisons said the Ukrainian national team beat them 5-1.

"Regardless of the score, a night we will remember!" the tweet said.