Ukrainian hockey team plays in Peoria to rebuild war-torn stadium

Published: Mar. 23, 2023 at 10:15 PM CDT
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PEORIA (25News Now) - Sunday, the Peoria Youth Hockey Association learned of the chance to welcome a team of players from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Despite the short notice, they jumped on the chance to give them a River City welcome.

Team moms like Rini Christofilakos-Soler got specialized t-shirts bearing the United States and Ukrainian flags, Trefzger’s cookies, and other goodies for each player. For the kids, the real momento was the chance to play hockey and be a kid away from a war-torn country.

Players were welcomed on the ice by clicking their hockey sticks on the walls and ice.

“We didn’t have any tournaments in Ukraine for these kids during this year when the war started,” the mom of a Ukranian player Katrina Monofa said. “Now they have the opportunity to play, to live their favorite life I suppose.”

Hockey is life for her son, according to Monofa. The Kharkiv Berserks had to leave their home city after the war with Russia began. Their ice rink was destroyed in the conflict. The team moved from town to town in Ukraine, and Monofa’s son joined the Berserks during one of those stops. They came to the US to play in Chicago and raise money for a new ice rink as a part of the charity Hockey for Heroes.

It’s not clear how much money was raised in Chicago, but a donation bin at the Owen Center was already half full. The money didn’t matter as much as the chance for the kids to experience America, according to Monofa. Thursday, they visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield before their game with the Peoria Mustangs.

Before the first puck drop, players exchanged sweet moments on the ice. Each Ukrainian player got a fist bump or hug from the Mustangs. In exchange, the Berserks gave each player a tote bag bearing the team’s logo.

Those kind exchanges didn’t mean the teams went easy on each other. The Mustangs were up four to one within the first period, but it seems like the score was the least of their concerns. Monofa was updating parents overseas and filming the game from the bleachers. Even though it was late in Ukraine during the match, she said parents were still up liking her messages and watching the clips.

“We [were] so excited to play this game,” Christofilakos-Soler said. “To welcome these boys, give them their gifts and play some hockey. Let them be normal 12-year-old boys for a night.”