Ukrainian hockey player in Barrie longs to return home

It was a well-intentioned move, if rather poorly timed. Moments before the puck drop in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series against the Mississauga Steelheads, the Barrie Colts held a ceremony to present a check to the Ukrainian Red Cross Relief Fund. They had two oversized checks: one for $10,000 from the team’s foundation and another for the same amount from a local charity called Guys That Give.

Naturally, the Colts wanted their 18-year-old rookie defenseman, Artur Cholach, the only Ukrainian player in the Ontario Hockey League and one of only two Ukrainian teenagers to play major junior hockey in Canada this season, to do part of the presentation. The problem is that they informed him about five minutes before he went on the ice.

Suddenly, the refuges that Cholach went to escape the constant worry of what was going on in his homeland – the skating rink and the game – mingled with the war raging in his country. And concern for his parents, cousins ​​and friends returned, minutes before an important playoff game.

“When the speaker started talking about Ukraine, I felt like crying,” Cholach said. “You come to the locker room and you see the guys and you start concentrating. You just think about the game and the playoffs and you’re all in, and your mind is on hockey. (After the) presentation of the check, I was kind of like, not dialed. Before the match, I had forgotten the situation in Ukraine. After that check presentation, I started thinking about it again and it kind of broke me down.

After a shaky first period, Cholach settled in and started showing what the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights saw when they drafted him in 2021. He started putting his stick in the hallways, at break up plays, impose himself physically and make a huge impact on an under-equipped Colts team in a 3-1 win.

It certainly wasn’t the first time his worlds had collided. Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24 and that night, in a regular season game against the Steelheads, the defensively reliable Cholach dropped three points. On the day he was asked to perform the ceremonial face-off at the Heritage Classic in Hamilton, a Russian airstrike on a military base just three miles from Cholach’s hometown of Novoyavorivsk in western Ukraine, killed 35 people. “My family was so scared of it,” Cholach said. “You’re just sitting in your house and, ‘Boom!’ It’s five kilometers away, but I have a feeling it’s somewhere close.

It feels like it’s close, even when you’re chasing your dreams over 7,000 miles away.

Cholach’s mother, Svetlana, and father, Sergiy, are safe in their town, located 30 kilometers west of Lviv and 40 kilometers east of the Polish border in western Ukraine . That part of the country has been largely spared so far, but his parents are stuck there, and he’s stuck for the offseason in Barrie.

Artur Cholach's mother Svetlana and father Sergiy are safe in their town, located 30 kilometers west of Lviv and 40 kilometers east of the Polish border in western Ukraine .

Cholach knows that if he returns to his native country, there is no way he will be able to return to Barrie next season, as anyone over the age of 18 is confined to the country in case they are needed for the war effort. . It helps that Cholach has spent every hockey season since he was 14 away from home, playing as far away as Moscow, but he’s never been away in an offseason. The last time he was home was just before Christmas, when he was able to spend a week with his parents after playing for Ukraine in the World Junior Championship Division I, Group B in Estonia .

Cholach played three seasons ago for Russia’s Central Army Under-16 team and turned down the opportunity to obtain Russian citizenship, a decision he is in retrospect very happy to have taken. .

So while his teammates have scattered and returned to their hometowns, families and girlfriends after the Colts season, Cholach is spending the summer with his ticket family in Barrie and continues to sculpt his six-foot body. four inches and 200 pounds in a body he hopes for. will one day be ready to face the rigors of the NHL. Instead of being with his family and friends at the end of June, he will celebrate his 19th birthday by texting his parents and two childhood friends who are in the Ukrainian army.

The Golden Knights’ development camp in July will be a welcome distraction, but four months will be long and uncertain before training camps open in September. Host families receive a stipend and four season tickets in exchange for hosting junior hockey players, but this obligation ends once the season is over. When Cholach had no home for the summer, however, his lodgings stepped up without hesitation.

“There was one night at the dinner table, he was almost in tears and he said, ‘Thank you for letting me stay here,'” said ticket mother Melanie Linseman who, along with her husband Kevin, hosted Cholach and teammate Jacob Frasca this season. “And we were like, ‘Oh my God, sure.’ After the season, the assistant general manager (Rob Stewart) said, ‘Sure, we’ll pay you for this’, and we were like, ‘Man, we’re not expecting payment.’ This is an exceptional situation and we We’ll do what we can. That’s the least of our worries at the moment.”

By all accounts, Cholach the person is a lot like Cholach the hockey player: stoic and poised, not ruled by emotion. He has dark brown eyes and laughs easily. His English is excellent. He spent much of the first part of the invasion obsessing over following events in his homeland, checking his phone between periods during games. “I was 24/7 on my phone, watching the news and everything,” he said. “It was really tough. It’s just deep in me. I just keep it deep.

Artur Cholach has conditioned himself to spend less time on his phone because it can be very stressful.

Cholach has conditioned himself to spend less time on his phone because it can be very stressful. His roommate, Frasca, said that when news of the war loomed, Cholach joked about it because, like so many others, he never thought Russia would actually invade. But once the war started, Frasca noticed that Cholach was spending more time in his room and increasingly distracted.

When the subject returns home, Linseman watches Cholach’s body language and quickly changes the subject. On one occasion, Cholach scrolled through his phone, showing Frasca photos of his family and friends, and he got emotional. “It hit him really hard,” Frasca said. “We tried to distract him as much as we could. It was tough for him, and it was tough for us to watch him go through it. Sometimes he’d pull out his phone and I had to say, “Man, put it away.” Don’t think about that now.'”

There’s no guarantee that Cholach will ever play in the NHL, but he has an array of tools that could make him a useful fifth or sixth defenseman for a long time. The Golden Knights watch him weekly and the Colts are firmly in his corner.

His future on the ice, however, is much clearer than his future off it. Cholach doesn’t know when he’ll see his family again, when he’ll be able to go home to pet his dog and see his friends. And with his two military friends, one of whom is on the front line in Kyiv, there is obviously no guarantee for their safety.

“I don’t think it’s going to end soon,” he said. “I don’t think (Russia) will just stop. They went all-in, but I don’t think that will end anytime soon. It’s so stupid. Deaths for nothing. It’s truly sad.”


Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of conduct. The Star does not share these opinions.

Catherine J. Martinez