Winnipeg, MB – From the moment the doors of the Canada Life Centre opened, it was clear that Monday night was not going to be ordinary hockey.
As spectators started to dot the seating bowl, draping the dark seats of the home of the Winnipeg Jets with the bright blue and yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag, the energy was palpable. As the clock neared 7:00 pm, the noise slowly began to build, first slowly before reaching a fever pitch during the Ukrainian anthem and staying there for the next two hours.
In front of a crowd of 7800 that sometimes felt more like 78,000, the Ukraine U25 National Team took on the University of Manitoba Bisons and whether it was about the game, the crowd, or the experience, by the time he stood at the media podium about 30 minutes after his team’s 5-1 victory, Ukraine U25 forward Gleb Kryvoshapkin quite simply didn’t really know what to say.
“We had this kind of stuff, these kinds of games only in our dreams before,” Kryvoshapkin said.
After three games and eleven days, Monday marked the final game of the “Hockey Can’t Stop” Tour.
The Hockey Can’t Stop Tour saw the Ukraine U25’s travel to four Canada West cities across two weeks, (Saskatchewan, Calgary, Edmonton and finally Winnipeg) to play tuneup games in advance of the World University Games on January 12. Also, to raise money for the Ukrainian Hockey Dream, the Ukrainian Hockey Federation charity focused on growing the sport in the country.
While Saskatchewan, Alberta and Calgary each provided capacity crowds in their own right, with a large Ukrainian population in Manitoba, and the Winnipeg Jets partnering with tour organizers to give them access to Canada Life Centre and bring 4000 new Ukrainian refugees to the game it created the opportunity for the capper to the Tour to be something special.
For Bisons forward Cody Behun, who holds Ukrainian heritage himself, that meant his family jumped at the opportunity to see him play.
“As soon as my family heard that we were playing the national team, it was a no-brainer that they would come here and support.”
With 14 members of the Bisons born in Winnipeg though (and 22 born in Manitoba altogether) Monday also presented a different opportunity. Born 12km south of Winnipeg in St Adolphe, for Bisons forward Devon Skoleski, like many other members of the Bisons, Monday night meant living out a childhood dream.
“Growing up and watching the Jets and seeing all the fans in the rink and then being a part of the fans and how loud it is and then being on the ice, it’s special,” Skoleski said.
From the moment the puck dropped, the energy seemed only to rise. “It kinda felt like a [Canada West] regular season game, but the fans made it a lot more special with energy and seeing all the flags,” Skoleski said.
It didn’t take long for the crowd to explode as Mykhailo Simchuk banged in a goal just four and a half minutes in to send the building into hysterics.
“Score goals in a full crowd; that’s an unbelievable feeling,” Simchuk said.
Ukraine held onto their 1-0 lead after one period, and after dropping their first three games of the tour, the drive to end with a win was there for the Ukrainian National Team.
“To leave Canada without the win, it couldn’t be possible, so we tried hard.” Ukraine head coach Vadym Shakhraychuk said.
With “SLAVA UKRANI” ringing across the arena every few minutes, in the second period Ukraine continued to up the pressure and slotted three goals past Manitoba’s Ross Harlyuk from Yaroslav Panchenko, Gleb Kryvoshapkin and Denys Matusevych to make it 4-0 after two periods.
Although it was not the result he was hoping for from his side, Manitoba coach Mike Sirant knew there was much more that mattered than the score on Monday night.
“Tonight was about more than just a hockey game, and we talked about that in the dressing room,” Sirant said.
“We do these things to give our players these special experiences so they can develop as athletes. To get them out of their comfort zone, to play in different venues that they normally don’t play in, obviously, to play different teams that play a different style of competition and when you do that, it gets players out of their comfort zone, they have to learn o adapt, learn from the experience and grow as players.”
The two teams split goals in the third before the final buzzer signified a 5-1 win for the Ukraine U25 National team.
Reflecting on the past two weeks, in comparison to the last year, has been something the members of the Ukraine roster have needed to do a lot. Still, they come to see it simply as being given the ability to compartmentalize.
“I think this is what it’s called to be a professional; you have your problems at home, whatever, but you still go on the ice, and you do what you have to do,” Kryvoshapkin said.
“When you go on the ice, it doesn’t matter if it’s a game or a practice; you think about nothing, only hockey.”
Despite the clear, friendly approach to the evening, with the World University Games (and a matchup with Team Canada) coming on Thursday, winning definitely mattered for Ukraine as they look to keep rebuilding their program.
“This is a historical event for our country and a historic win for our university national ice hockey teams,” Shakhraychuk said.
“I really hope it’s going to be an inspiration for our ways during the 2023 World University Games.”