QUEBEC CITY (AP) — The decision to have players from both teams line up arm-in-arm at center ice for the playing of the Ukrainian and United States’ national anthems was pre-planned in what stood as a symbol of unity and solidarity.
What no one anticipated was the spontaneous celebration that erupted among the 11- and 12-year-olds following the Ukrainian Selects’ 3-1 victory at the International Peewee Hockey tournament on Saturday.
Rather than shuffle off the ice, members of the Boston Junior Bruins happily took part in a victory lap along with the Selects, which ended with the teams gathering again at center ice, where they posed for a picture with one player from each side holding up the ends of a large Ukrainian flag.
“First of all, it’s a message that everybody can be friends and should be friends and live in peace and respect each other,” Ukraine forward Denys Lupandin said in an answer translated by coach Evgheniy Pysarenko. “It doesn’t matter from where you are.”
The bonds that were made and the electric atmosphere of playing in front of some 18,000 fans in Quebec City’s Videotron Centre weren’t lost on Boston goalie James Boccuzzi.
“This was definitely a life-changing moment for me,” Boccuzzi said. “I’ve never experienced anything like it.”
The moments went far beyond fulfilling the message of peace that tournament organizers hoped to send across the world nearly a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began. And it exceeded the vision Pysarenko and Sean Berube had in August, when they began the lengthy process of cobbling together a team of Ukrainian refugees.
“The players reacted like that because they also want to show unity,” said Berube, who spent countless hours and some $20,000 of his own money crisscrossing Europe to gather the players in Romania. “What a day for hockey. What a day for sport.”
The game didn’t lack for drama, either.
With Boccuzzi keeping the swift-skating and play-making Ukrainians at bay on a number of close-in chances, Boston’s Kai Ochi opened the scoring 1:27 into the third period.
The pro-Ukraine — but not anti-Boston — crowd finally got a chance to cheer and chant “Ole, Ole, Ole,” when Yehor Kosenko batted in a bouncing puck to tie the game with 4:48 remaining. Lupandin sneaked a shot in off a faceoff with 2:04 remaining and then sealed the win with an empty-net goal.
Speaking in English, Lupandin said he and his teammates were nervous to open the game upon being welcomed by the large crowd.
“The first moment it was so scary. I look and up and too many people look at me and my team, and first moment it was so hard, first period,” he said. “But second and third period, it was easily for me and maybe for my team. And thank you to the fans who come looking at us.”
A large number of fans arrived three hours before puck drop. White T-shirts spelling out “UKRAINE” were draped over the backs of chairs in one section. In another, a blue-and-yellow version of the Canadian flag was attached to a railing.
In Section 113, Roger Poirier carried a Ukrainian flag while handing out blue-and-white handkerchiefs. Poirier, who is from Quebec City, has become active in supporting Ukraine in part because he had business there, during which he also met his wife.
Jessica Anthony wore a T-shirt with the Ukrainian flag on it and had on matching yellow sweatpants. Though an avid hockey fan, she acknowledged she doesn’t normally attend peewee games.
“I want to express my solidarity with Ukraine,” Anthony said.
The atmosphere was mostly foreign from what the Ukrainian Selects have known for much of the past year. Many of them have resettled with their families as refugees in countries neighboring Ukraine. At least five still live in Ukraine, where rocket-warning sirens in the middle of the night are the norm.
“It’s an honor to participate in this event and everybody in solidarity with us and supporting our country,” Pysarenko said. “Everybody wants peace. These kids want peace mostly probably because you don’t know their stories, but I tell you they have the terrible times and terrible experiences.”
One of those experiences included five players’ trip to the Romanian border to open training camp last month. Twice, they saw rockets fly above them.
That’s something Bruins assistant coach Mike Cashman couldn’t even imagine. He hoped the Ukrainians can enjoy the new memories they’ve made at the tournament.
“I just hope that these kids from Ukraine, they just experienced a thrill of a lifetime like our players did,” Cashman said. “You know, I don’t know what the future holds for them, unfortunately, but today they can remember today and be really excited about the future.”
AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports