For the Ukrainian U25 National team, walking into Canadian hockey rinks feels both worlds away and just like home.
“It feels like and it smells like hockey in here. So it’s really nice,” Ukrainian forward Bogden Stupak said with a smile.
On Monday night, it sounded like hockey too.
More than 1,700 fans, many of them Ukrainian families who have fled the war for Calgary, packed into Father David Bauer arena to cheer the visitors on against the Canada West-leading Calgary Dinos in the second match of the Hockey Can’t Stop Tour.
Since arriving in Calgary, many refugee children have picked up the sport and eagerly pressed up against the glass to watch their national team.
“This game was so, so cool,” forward Mykhailo Simchuk said. “They watch us like big brothers. When they leave the country that’s a good opportunity to start their hockey career much better than in Ukraine. That’s the only plus.”
Simchuk scored Ukraine’s first goal of the tour to a thunderous ovation in the three-one loss.
The crowd broke out into an impromptu rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem before the teams exited the ice.
Through tickets, merchandise sales and donations, the University of Calgary game raised $30,000.
“It’s just insane, the passion for the game, especially through those conditions is just unbelievable, really,” Dinos captain Noah King said. “You’ve just got to respect it for sure.”
It’s not the only chilling memory the young team is leaving Calgary with.
Their long bus ride in from Saskatoon didn’t stop at the hotel, but the Saddledome.
“I was like, ‘No, it can’t be true,” Ukrainian forward Bogdan Stupak said. “After some time I was like ‘Oh, we’re actually going to an NHL game!’ It’s like a dream come true.”
The Calgary Flames surprised the team with a New Year’s Eve game-day experience.
The majority of players are visiting North America for the first time but grew up watching NHL hockey at home.
Bogdan in particular remembers being spellbound by the on-ice wizardry Pavel Datsyuk pulled off with the Detroit Red Wings night in and night out but happily pulled on the Flaming ‘C’ as Calgary outlasted the Vancouver Canucks three-two.
Only eight Ukrainian players have suited up in the NHL, though a case could be made to include former Flame Akim Aliu, who was born in Nigeria but grew up in Kyiv.
For the new crop of talent, watching the highest level of hockey in the world gave them a glimpse of what could one day be possible in their own country.
“Many people in Ukraine, they know about hockey a little,” Stupak said. “I think we could learn a lot from you guys, from Canadians, from Americans, from European people. It would be great if they come to Ukraine, and show us and our coaches how to do stuff, how to build ice rinks like this.”
An extra reason to cheer — the Flames donated the evening’s 50/50 proceeds — $150,000 — to the tour.
“It’s (a) fantastic experience for all of us, I’m so happy to be here,” defenceman Andrii Grygoriev added. “I want to say thank you to all of Calgary Flames and this is great.”
“This will help the kids who are still in Ukraine, who were displaced from the east part to the central part,” Ukraine Hockey Federation executive director Oleksandra Slatvytska said. “As well, part of this money will go to the Ukrainians who are right now in Canada, who emigrated over here and who need support.”
Some funds will also be used to help rebuild hockey facilities in Ukraine that have been damaged or destroyed during the war.
The tour moves to Edmonton on Tuesday night before the team piles back in the bus for the long ride to Manitoba.
“We become a family and maybe even more than a family because it’s like more than 24 hours shoulder to shoulder,” Bogdan, who is clearly an optimist, added. “We are all together, helping each other, you know, with all the bags and all the things we have to carry around. We have fun, we make jokes and it’s nice.”
The tour is helping them prepare for the Winter University Games in Lake Placid where they’ll be the first Ukrainian hockey team to compete in a decade.