“It was adrenaline that brought us to France”… After fleeing their country, young Ukrainian hockey players put their skates back on

Bickering, laughter, grimace contests with their heads stuck to a window, children running in the hallways, others organize a battle of miniature dinosaurs. Everyone seems to be enjoying a beautiful late afternoon, Thursday, April 7, at Cergy’s Leisure Island.

A common area like so many others, except for the number of drawings with the colors of the Ukrainian flag, also present at the entrance of the accommodation center, behind the flowering prunus. Since they arrived in the middle of the night a month earlier, the town of Val-d’Oise has housed 33 refugees, 12 women who came with their 16 children, and five unaccompanied minors. All fled Ukraine because of the war led by Russia, and are reunited in France around the same passion: ice hockey.

French children's drawings adorn the cupboards of the shelter on the Ile de Cergy.  (FRANCE INFO: SPORT / Simon Bardet)

While the Ukrainian Hockey Federation organized the departure of all its licensees, its French counterpart (FFHG) immediately came forward to welcome the young athletes. A moment etched in the minds of those present at that moment. “There was a child at the bottom of the bus, covered in mud, eating but not speaking during the 20-hour journey. It took the psychologist an hour to get him off the bus… The first question I asked him used to be: ‘When can I play hockey?’remembers with emotion the president of the FFHG, Pierre-Yves Gerbeau.

“We also saw a small 7.8-year-old, with no suitcase, with only a small backpack and his hockey stick.”

Pierre-Yves Gerbeau

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If the destination was the same for everyone, not everyone comes from the same club, nor from the same city. Artiom (14 years including eight hockey practices), Sergei (15 years including ten.) practice of hockey), Vladislav (16 years including seven practice of hockey), Andrei (15 years including eleven practice of hockey) and Mark (15 years including nine practice of hockey), everyone took their sports equipment out of the suitcase. Timofei, 17, lives near Lviv, he explains their journey: “Initially we took the first bus to the border, which we had to cross on foot. Then we waited in a refugee center in Poland. We stayed for twelve hours before the bus to France arrived. It was late, but we were finally able to come in and come here.”

Artiom, Sergei, Timofei, Vladislav, Andrei and Mark (from left to right) are between 14 and 16 years old.  Everyone is now training at the Aren'Ice in Cergy.  (FRANCE INFO: SPORT / Simon Bardet)

No bus for Elena, clothes in the colors of Ukraine on her back, and her son Alexandr, 12, who usually plays lacrosse on the ice rinks of Kiev. “We were very lucky. At the beginning of the war, we were in Kiev for ten days under the bombings. We hid in the cellars, but I understood that we had to leave to save our child. I left my husband, my dog, my parents, my brother. They all stayed in Kiev. We are in contact every day, but I am very concerned. We do not know how it will end.”she explains, her eyes twinkling blue, as her son… plays a fighting game on a small computer.

Elena, dressed in Ukrainian colors, and her son Alexandr, a 12-year-old hockey player who usually trains in Kiev.  (FRANCE INFO: SPORT / Simon Bardet)

The bus to France, she learned of its existence on the Polish border, when she had already traveled west by car. What enter a specific destination in the GPS. “We just stopped in Austria because we knew things were organized for the Ukrainians. We slept there one night and then we knew we were expected in Cergy. The adrenaline that brought us here, and we are very lucky now to be safe. ”

“I was driven by adrenaline because I knew it was to save my child’s life.”


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After a difficult journey, families benefit from full support. “They are fed and housed, it is the work of the Leisure Island services. The city of Cergy provides social support, which is very important. They also have psychological support”, sums up Thibault Humbert, vice president of the urban community of Cergy-Pontoise. The establishment of psychological support reassures Ukrainian mothers, who are well aware of the trauma experienced by emerging hockey players. “A few days ago, someone set off a firecracker not far from here. The children heard it and were very concerned. As soon as they hear the sound of an explosion, they all become very anxious. The psychologists are working with them. They are there to help them.” help out.’Elena tries to reassure herself.

>> Read also: MAINTENANCE. “Using sport to make Ukrainians laugh again”: the call of the president of the French Ice Hockey Federation<

At the end of the day, head to the teen’s favorite place of expression, Aren’Ice de Cergy, for training. Under the watchful eye of his mother Tatiana, young Mikhail, 10, proudly wears the jersey of his club, Sokil kyiv. And he wants to show that “the Ukrainians are slightly stronger than the French” on the ice. A feeling shared by all young people, whose tongues run wild when it comes to talking about their sport“The game is a bit more brutal in Ukraine. Here it’s softer, more basic. We don’t do complicated things. In France they rely a lot on individual skills. In Ukraine, the concept of team is more important.”, hires Sergei. Andrei sends out an attack that causes uninhibited laughter from his teammates: “They think less than we do, they think less.”

Mikhail, 10, Sokil Kiev jersey on his shoulders, with his mother Tatiana, at Aren'Ice in Cergy.  (FRANCE INFO: SPORT / Simon Bardet)

Mark, who fulfills the function of goalkeeper, takes the time to leave his cage to come and tell about the many qualities of French training in particular “better ice and conditions than in Ukraine”† And if he admits that the level in his country of origin is a bit higher, he is not bored in the cages: “It’s not easier, because in France I train with opponents who are one or two years older than me. So they are fast, muscular. But it suits me very well, because that’s what I’m learning, that I progressing.” Voice of wisdom, it is his teammate Timofei who concludes: “You have to understand that the French have a different style of play than ours. They are two different schools, two different ways of playing hockey. So it is difficult to compare.”

For the parents, never far from their phones to check the news from the country, to watch the kids wield the stick, master the puck and string the drills together at high speed is an opportunity to immortalize the moment for the family that stayed in Ukraine. “For children it is very important to play, it is their pleasure, a big part of their life, explains Tatiana, phone in handWe communicate with my husband every day, I send him videos of our son in practice, on the ice, so he can watch him play. It reassures him.”

“My husband, for his part, is one of the volunteers fighting to protect Kiev. He doesn’t tell us everything so as not to traumatize us too much.”


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Send small moments of happiness from France, a few seconds of rest to men defending their country, an action shared by many mothers, such as Elena: “I make live videos so that my husband can see how it goes during training, and what life is like here. It is very important for them to know that we are safe. It reassures them in Kiev.”

Uprooted but grateful, all mothers take the time to welcome the French people. “When we got here, we got everything, my son was rested, Elena explains† They told us, ‘You’re home.’ It was very moving, I thank France and the hockey federation, the city of Cergy and all the inhabitants very much. Everyone was great with us.” Tatiana also praises the attitude of her son Alexandr’s new friends: “Initially the children were separated, in different schools. The French went to such lengths to ensure that all Ukrainian children were united in the same school. It was very moving.”

Gradually, families begin to talk about the future. The long term, impossible to see very clearly. While imagining they would stay for two weeks when they arrived, they now know that the French can stay longer. Thus, small gatherings become events that should not be neglected. “The children received an invitation to play with the Americans from the professional team of Jokers de Cergy. We sent them an email inviting them to a friendly meeting”Elena delights, thrilled to imagine her 12-year-old sharing the ice with the French Championship semi-finalists.

From there to envision Alexandre making the trip to France again later, in more serene circumstances? “He loves France and adapts very well here. Everything is well organized. The children are at school, they are going to play sports. Sometimes I ask him if he would like to come back to France later to study. , or even to play hockey . He tells me why not, that France is very nice, but that for now he mainly wants to go home, to Kiev. He wants to see his dog, his father of course. The whole family misses him.”

The Ile de Loisirs reception center in Cergy welcomes the 33 Ukrainian refugees at least until May 1.  (FRANCE INFO: SPORT / Simon Bardet)

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