MONTREAL — Sean Bérubé said he thought it was a joke when he was first asked to help assemble a team of Ukrainian preteen refugees, displaced by war and spread out across Europe, to play in a renowned Quebec City hockey tournament.
Bérubé, a businessman from the Quebec City region, was having a beer last March in Bucharest with Evgheniy Pysarenko, whom he played hockey with in Ukraine as a teenager.
The businessman — with the help of Pysarenko — had just travelled to Ukraine to help his former Ukrainian hockey coach and the coach's family flee the Russian invasion. To show his gratitude, Bérubé said he owed Pysarenko a beer.
"Then he (Pysarenko) said, 'No, I've got a different thing to ask you. I have a different favour."
That favour morphed into a mission, culminating with travel visas to Canada for a group of 11- and 12-year-olds from Ukraine to play in the Quebec International Peewee Hockey Tournament, which has hosted legends like Wayne Gretzky and Guy Lafleur.
The Ukrainian team is scheduled to take to the ice at the Videotron Centre Feb. 11 to play the Junior Bruins from Massachusetts.
"My thrill is to see them smile after all the mess and all the trouble they've been through for the last few months," Bérubé said in an interview this week before heading to Europe.
The biggest obstacle to getting them in Canada was the paperwork, Bérubé said. The boys were living with their mothers in various European countries, while their fathers were on the front lines fighting the Russian invasion.
"So to get the signature for their mother — that was the easy part," Bérubé said. "But the most difficult part was to get the signature from the fathers … (they) are all on the battlefield … so we had through a courier service to get them to sign."
Pysarenko, speaking from Romania, said he searched for Ukrainian coaches and put together a list of potential players before he contacted Bérubé, who put up his own money to bring the kids to Quebec.
As of this week, Bérubé was still finalizing tickets and travel insurance and making sure families in Quebec City are ready to host the boys.
"I want to give back to Ukraine," Bérubé said. "You know, I had such a great time when I went there as a teenager, so I feel it's my duty."
Tryouts were held over Christmas in Romania. Pysarenko said some of the boys knew each other, either as former teammates or opponents. They will gather again in Romania later this week, travelling from places like Latvia, Germany, Slovakia and Hungary, before they fly to Montreal on Feb. 1 and ultimately end up to Quebec City.
"The first goal is to show these kids that anything is possible, that dreams can come true even if it’s a difficult time back home and it’s war,” Pysarenko said. “They need to believe in a better future, and they can be an example for other people all over the world.”
Bérubé was heading to Europe to pick up four players at the Ukraine-Romania border. Two kids are originally from Kherson, which spent months under Russian occupation, and two others from Odesa, which has also been bombed.
At least one player has lost his father to the war. In preparing a player's visa application, Bérubé noticed that only his mother's signature was included.
"I asked her if she has a divorce certificate or something and she didn't say a thing to me and just sent me back the death certificate for the father. I looked at it and it just happened a few months ago."
Pysarenko played in the Quebec tournament in 1993, a couple of years after Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union.
“It wasn’t such an easy life for us, but it was very, very important to go to Canada, take a big step, see the world, see hockey,” Pysarenko recalled.
Patrick Dom, general manager of the Quebec tournament, said he could have never imagined the type of response generated by the Ukrainian team's participation. The pre-sales for Feb. 11 — when the Ukraine team first hits the ice — have broken records, he said.
"If for the time that they're going to be here, they just can forget what's going on over there and where they live … that's what we want," Dom said.
"They will remember this for the rest of their life."
The tournament runs Feb. 8-19.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2023.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press