QUEBEC CITY (AP) — The travel, the diplomatic paperwork and out-of-pocket cost of $20,000 Sean Berube estimated spending crisscrossing Europe to gather a group of 21 Ukrainian refugees to form a hockey team of 11- and 12-year-old boys is a mere pittance compared to the payoff.

The Quebec City businessman would do it all over again in a heartbeat based on the transformation in the children’s demeanor — from worrying to wowed — Berube has witnessed over the past two weeks.

“When I met them first in Romania, I could see that some of them were reserved, quiet to themselves. Some of them, I didn’t see them smile,” Berube told The Associated Press on Friday. “And now, I mean they’re totally embracing the moment.”

That moment will come Saturday, when the Ukrainian Selects make their debut facing the Boston Junior Bruins in the Class AA division of the International Peewee Tournament before what is expected to be a capacity crowd of 18,000 — the first sellout in the tournament’s 63-year history — at Quebec City’s Videotron Centre.

Whatever the outcome, the boys have already won as far as Berube is concerned for the two-week respite they will have enjoyed from the daily horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine back home.

And that includes getting a good night’s sleep.

“In Ukraine, usually there’s sirens at 4 in the morning, so they always have to wake up and rush to the most fortified area of their building,” Berube said, referring to what one player told him of experiencing near daily rocket warnings. “Now, he can sleep the whole night.”

The game in the two-loss elimination tournament is the culmination of a process Berube and tournament organizers first launched in August, when the possibility of the team being assembled was first broached by Evgheniy Pysarenko.

A former tournament participant and friend of Berube, Pysarenko was inspired after watching many refugee children fleeing Ukraine and crossing into Romania with hockey equipment in tow. He started holding practices as a way to keep the boys occupied before realizing they were talented enough to compete.

The idea, coupled with the team’s arrival in Quebec City some 10 days ago, has resulted in an outpouring of support from across Canada, and generated international attention at a time the strife in Ukraine is intensifying a little less than a year since the war began.

Fans attending the game have been asked to wear white as a statement of peace. A contingent of Quebec City’s small Ukrainian community will be on hand waving yellow and blue in cheering on a team considered to be a symbol of hope for their country’s future.

Olga Grayvoronska Sharpe never cared much for hockey during the 11 years she has lived in Canada after leaving behind her family in Kharkiv, Ukraine. She’s now eagerly excited to be attending her first game on Saturday.

“I’m sure I won’t be able to hold my tears back out of joy for those young men,” she said. “It’s for the future, the future of life, that life no matter what — no matter (Russian President) Vladimir Putin’s plan — will prevail and young people would win.”

What hit home for Grayvoronska Sharpe is the memory of crossing into Ukraine by foot last summer and seeing her bombed-out hometown devastated, while visiting her 82-year-old parents, who refused her pleas to leave Karkhiv by saying, “If we leave, who would stay?”

She then turned her attention to Berube by saying, “this wouldn’t be possible without Sean. I view him as a hero.”

Berube deflected the attention.

“I’m doing this because I want to give back to Ukraine and to those boys,” he said. “The heroes are their fathers who risk their lives.”

One player’s father died in action. Another five have fathers fighting on the front line defending Ukraine. In the meantime, the remainder of their families are scattered around Europe.

Berube is impressed by how the players have handled the spotlight, while enjoying themselves during tours of the city, which included a shopping spree at a local sports equipment store.

“They’re like rock stars,” he said. “They’re very mature for their age. I think probably what they went through, they have a big sense of duty for their country. And that’s how the coaches prepared them too, that they’re doing that for Ukraine and they want to prove to the world that Ukrainians are proud and can be great hockey players.”

There’s little doubt Berube will grow emotional once the game begins on Saturday.

“I think it’s a message of unity,” Berube said. “Tomorrow is going to be a celebration of hockey and how hockey unites people. And it’s going to be an event for peace for Ukraine.”


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