Watching a war unfold from Anchorage, a young Ukrainian hockey player hopes to reconnect with his family

Anchorage Wolverines hockey player Bohdan Panasenko woke up last Thursday to a text from his mother about the bombings on the Ukrainian border. This week, the 18-year-old Ukrainian watched a video showing that shelling had reached the main square of his hometown.

Panasenko, who plays for Wolverines, hails from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, which is under attack from the Russian military. Panasenko’s father, Oleg, is now in Ukraine and has volunteered to fight for the country. His mother Inna and 14-year-old brother Yaroslav fled to neighboring Romania and hope to eventually find Panasenko in Alaska.

Despite the stress on him, Panasenko, the WolverinesNumber 28, remained calm and focused during practice Tuesday at Ben Boeke Ice Arena in Anchorage. A fast skater, proficient in the handling of the stick, he seemed to get through the drills effortlessly. At the end of the training, he spoke in Russian about his experience watching the war unfold from abroad.

Panasenko said he was proud of his country’s ability to withstand a military giant like Russia.

“You can raise your self-esteem by watching how Ukraine can defend itself,” Panasenko said. “You can see we can fight back.”

Yet the bombardment that began at the Ukrainian border has now shifted to Ukrainian towns and cities, including downtown Kharkiv, which is familiar and dear to Panasenko. In videos posted on social media, Panasenko says he watches buildings in his neighborhood being destroyed.

“They sent a rocket yesterday, did you hear?” said Panasenko. “How can you send a rocket downtown where civilians are driving their cars?”

[Putin puts Russian nuclear forces on alert as Ukrainian civilian deaths mount]

Panasenko said he called his father daily, offering words of support, but also expressing admiration for his strength. He said if he was at any other time in his life, he would also choose to fight.

“If I had built my own family – if I was achieving my life purpose – of course I would enlist,” Panasenko said.

When Panasenko thinks of Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million people, he says he thinks of the Ukrainians who stayed behind, like some of his friends, and who now take refuge in their apartments or fight like his father. Kharkiv keeps him memories of childhood like the days spent with the people he loves and his time skating at the local rink.

“Honestly, I hope it’s intact, but I don’t know,” he said of the rink. “I hope we can go back there again.”

Get to safety

Some might say war came to Ukraine overnight, but premonitions of war were in the air long before last Wednesday, Panasenko said.

For weeks and months, the news developed gradually. When Russian troops began to approach the border, Ukrainians like Panasenko’s family expected escalation, but not war.

“They believed until the last moment that it wouldn’t come to this,” Panasenko said.

Waking up to news of the Russian invasion last Thursday, Panasenko said he felt disbelief.

“I woke up – it was night in Ukraine and morning here,” he said, “and my mother texted me: ‘They’re bombing us!’ ”

Panasenko’s family decided to move to western Ukraine, and a few hours later one of the first strikes hit their hometown.

With Ukraine becoming less secure, Panasenko contacted his host family, as well as the Wolverines; the two stepped up to help.

“The family is great; they helped me a lot,” he said. “The team also helps.”

The team has started helping the family complete the necessary paperwork to travel as quickly as possible, Wolverines vice president of communications Kari Ellsworth said. They also spread the word about the family, and more Alaskans and their acquaintances around the world also stepped up.

“I don’t think the family had a night without shelter or a day without transportation during this whole ordeal,” Ellsworth said. “I mean, we’ve seen the pictures; This is not the case of everyone. »

Panasenko’s mother and brother originally planned to go to Poland, but ended up in Romania, also a designated country of refuge.

Panasenko’s foster mother in Anchorage contacted a childhood friend now living in Romania, who offered Inna and Yaroslav Panasenko a place to stay. The Wolverines also reached out to the Alaska congressional delegation for help bringing Panasenko’s family to the United States, Ellsworth said.

Now they are working to get an expedited interview for a US travel visa. Panasenko also hopes that his father will eventually be able to reunite with the family in Alaska.

“At the end of the day, Alaskans are helping Alaskans,” said Hellen Payares, who works for the Wolverines’ marketing team and previously helped bring a family from Afghanistan to Anchorage.

face hockey

Meanwhile, Panasenko stays busy skating in Anchorage. Hockey is a constant in his life.

“Each person has their own psychology, their own approach to coping,” he said. “For me, it’s about staying informed, but also doing your own thing. Practice is practice, work is work.

Panasenko’s passion for sports began by following in his father’s footsteps.

According to Wolverines head coach Mike Aikens, who calls Panasenko “Bo,” Panasenko’s father played professional hockey for 13 years.

“He was a good player and he played a few years in this league years ago in the Detroit area,” Aikens said. “I think Bo kind of takes the same route.”

When Panasenko was 11, he moved to the Donbass region of Ukraine to live with his grandfather and play for the local team. Then, in the pre-pandemic period, between the ages of 15 and 18, he lived and performed in Ukraine, Finland and Latvia. In September, Panasenko moved to Alaska, where he became the first Ukrainian player to join the Anchorage Wolverines. There is only one other Ukrainian currently in the league, playing for a team in Amarillo, Texas.

Panasenko’s goal is to play hockey in an American college and then he dreams of eventually playing professional hockey in the National Hockey League. So far, eight Ukrainian players arrived in the NHL.

Aikens said Panasenko plays ‘tough and physical’ for the Wolverines and is ‘an excellent puck handler’, unique in how he combines ‘puck skills, skating, physical strength and competitiveness’ .

“When players get to the rink, it’s time for them to forget about some of the other things that are going on in their lives,” Aikens said. “Here they are with their teammates, and during training they can focus on the task at hand.”

Aikens is a long-time coach, but dealing with a situation like this is new. Despite the challenges and the language barrier, he does his best to support Panasenko.

Panasenko’s English is getting better and better since moving to Anchorage, but if there’s something Aikens really needs to tell him, he texts him, which makes Panasenko’s translation easier.

The Anchorage Wolverines released a declaration on February 28 to express solidarity with Panasenko: “Although the attack is devastating, Ukraine remains resilient and we remain inspired by the strength of the entire Panasenko family. Today, and every day, we are at Bo’s side.

As well as supporting No. 28, Aikens said the Wolverines are also working to acquire skates and hockey equipment for his younger brother, who also plays the sport. The team wants to make sure that when Yaroslav arrives in Anchorage, he can have a sense of normalcy by engaging in the activities he loves.

“The hockey world is a small, tight-knit community where organizations help each other, teams help each other,” Aikens said. “And now it’s bigger than that: people all over the world are trying to help, and it’s really special that way.”

(The Wolverines ownership group includes Aaron Schutt, Ryan Binkley, Kai Binkley Sims, John Ellsworth Jr. and Jay Frawner. Binkley and Sims are part of Binkley Co., which owns Anchorage Daily News. The Binkleys are not involved in coverage Of actuality.)

Daily News reporter Iris Samuels contributed.

Catherine J. Martinez