Despite beginning their tour of Western Canada with a loss to the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, Ukraine's national under-25 ice hockey team received a standing ovation amid waving Ukrainian flags as the final horn sounded.
The team's game against the Huskies is the first of four games against Canada West hockey teams, with matches set against university teams from Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg during the "Hockey Can't Stop Tour."
Ticket sale profits from the four games will raise money for the displaced and arenas in Ukrainian cities that have been devastated by the Russian invasion through the Canada/Ukraine Foundation.
According to a November release from Canada West, arenas in "Severodonetsk, Druzhkivka, Donetsk, Kramatorsk, Mariupol, Kherson and Melitopol have been lost or destroyed."
A defencemen on the Ukrainian team said the team is excited to play in Canada, and for a very good reason.
"The main difference, I think, is the missiles," said Andrei Grigoriev, 24, adding the team would play through the weekly Russian attacks.
Grigoriev found it difficult to explain why he chose to play hockey instead of join the war effort. A law has prevented men aged 18 to 60 from leaving Ukraine without the special permission he and his teammates received.
WATCH | Ukrainian team opens "Hockey Can't Stop Tour" in Saskatoon
Misha Simchuk, 20, says it difficult to focus on hockey when you're aware of the situation back home in Ukraine, where "every morning they [his mother and 11-year-old sister] are woken up because of rocket bomb."
'Hockey still exists in Ukraine'
The captains of the two teams shared the traditional Ukrainian bread-and-salt welcome before the game, followed by a ceremonial puck drop that included a Ukrainian family who had fled the war to Saskatoon.
Then, the sell-out crowd of nearly 2,400 people watched the two teams battle it out, with the Huskies taking a 2-0 lead in the first period and holding that score until the end of the game.
Oleksandra Slatvytska, the CEO of the Ukrainian ice hockey federation, said it's important that people recognize the importance of the game in her embattled country.
"Hockey still exists still in Ukraine," she said. "We're still alive and …we have ice hockey; and that we still have war and we need help."
After the conclusion of their games in Canada, the Ukrainian team will participate in the Winter FISU World University Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., taking place from Jan. 12-23.