MONTREAL — Six Ukrainian children who took part in Quebec City's famed peewee hockey tournament earlier this year are returning to the provincial capital next month to live in the province and attend school.
The players were part of a team of 11- and 12-year-old Ukrainian refugees who were showered with attention at the annual Quebec International Peewee Hockey Tournament in February.
One of the organizers who helped bring the team to Quebec City last winter said the six had expressed a desire to stay in the province at the time but had to return home due to visa requirements.
"Pretty much on the last day they were in Quebec … there were some kids that asked their host families if it would be possible for them to stay and play hockey in Quebec and go to school," said Sean Bérubé, a Quebec City-area businessman.
"We spoke with those boys, and I said that it was better for them to go back, to comply with the immigration rules, but I would try our very best to find a school for them."
Bérubé said Monday the boys have secured visas to take classes and play hockey at the city's English-language St. Patrick's High School.
"We're actually quite lucky that all six will be in the same school and be playing for the same team," Bérubé said in an interview from Europe.
The children were feted earlier this year, playing before a sold-out crowd at the Vidéotron Centre and taking part in numerous activities, including a Montreal Canadiens practice and NHL game.
"Since the day they went back, they've been talking about Quebec and their experience almost on a daily basis with their parents back in Ukraine," Bérubé said.
But they've been warned this time will be very different.
"For this trip, I told those boys 'Hey, you're going to be coming now and it's going to be serious,'" Bérubé said. "They are coming here to be like regular Quebec kids, go to school, play hockey and try to have a normal childhood."
Bérubé said one of the players will have his mother with him while the five others will live with the billet families who housed them during the tournament.
The children are from Kyiv, Dnipro and Odesa and have lived through war. Bérubé recalled speaking to one of the mothers about the Quebec option the same day their Dnipro apartment burned down from a nearby airstrike.
Of the six players, one has already lost a father in the war and at least two others have fathers on active duty and see them only rarely when they have breaks from the front, he said.
It's not certain how long they will be able to stay in Quebec, but Bérubé is hopeful it will extend beyond the coming school year.
What started as Bérubé's personal mission has also turned into a community effort.
A group of volunteers started a non-profit organization to help finance the Ukrainian students heading to Quebec City for school. They named the organization Mission Druzhba in honour of the Druzbha-78 team that played in tournament in 1992.
Olivier Hubert-Benoit, a Quebec City father of three who now works with Bérubé on the non-profit, became involved last February as soon as he heard the team was coming. He housed two of the players last winter and one of the six will move in with him when he arrives in late August.
"Even before the peewee tournament, when the war hit in Ukraine, my wife and I had looked at helping one way or the other," Hubert-Benoit said. "We're happy to act and help alleviate some of the suffering."
In addition to helping offset some of the costs of the students, Hubert-Benoit said, the non-profit is also raising funds to permit another Ukraine-based team dreaming about the annual peewee tournament.
For his part, Bérubé is looking forward to seeing the kids again and welcomes the community support.
"I had four weeks of really high, very intense emotions with them and back in February, so I really got attached to them and I want to see them back," Bérubé said. "But also, now I'm not alone in all this."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 24, 2023.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press