It was a well-meaning gesture, albeit a rather poorly timed one. Moments before puck drop prior to Game 3 of their first-round playoff series against the Mississauga Steelheads, the Barrie Colts held a ceremony to present a cheque to the Red Cross Ukraine Relief Fund. They had two oversized cheques: 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 defenceman Artur Cholach, the only Ukrainian player in the Ontario Hockey League and one of only two Ukrainian teenagers playing major junior hockey in Canada this season, to be a part of the presentation. The problem was, they informed him about five minutes before he hit the ice.
Suddenly, the safe havens where Cholach went to escape the constant worry about what was going on in his homeland — the rink and the game — became intertwined with the war raging in his country. And the worry for his parents and cousins and friends came flooding back, just minutes before an important playoff game.
“When the speaker started talking about Ukraine, I wanted to cry,” Cholach said. “You come to the locker room and you see the guys and you start concentrating. You just think about the game and it’s playoffs and you’re all-in, and your mind is on hockey. (After the) cheque presentation I kind of was like, undialed. Before the game I forgot about the situation in Ukraine. After that cheque presentation, I started to think about it again and it kind of undialed me.”
After a shaky first period, Cholach settled in and began to show what the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights saw when they drafted him in 2021. He started to get his stick into lanes, broke up plays, imposed himself physically and had a huge impact on an undermanned Colts team in a 3-1 win.
It certainly wasn’t the first time his worlds collided. Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 and that night, in a regular-season game against the Steelheads, the defensively reliable Cholach went minus-three. The day he was invited to perform the ceremonial faceoff at the Heritage Classic in Hamilton, a Russian airstrike on a military base just five kilometres from Cholach’s hometown of Novoyavorivsk in western Ukraine killed 35 people. “My family was so scared of this,” Cholach said. “You’re just sitting in your house and, ‘Boom!’ It’s five kilometres away, but it feels like it’s somewhere near.”
It feels like it’s somewhere near, even when you’re chasing your dreams more than 7,000 kilometres away.
Cholach’s mother Svetlana and father Sergiy are safe in their town, which is 30 kilometres west of Lviv and 40 kilometres 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 is stuck for the off-season in Barrie.
Cholach knows that if he returns to his homeland, there’s no way he’ll be able to go back to Barrie next season, since anyone over the age of 18 is confined to the country in case they’re 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 has never been away for an off-season. 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 Division I, Group B world junior championship in Estonia.
Cholach played three seasons ago for the Central Army’s under-16 team in Russia and turned down the opportunity to gain Russian citizenship, a decision that in retrospect he’s extremely glad he made.
So, while his teammates dispersed and returned to their hometowns and families and girlfriends after the Colts season, Cholach is spending the summer with his billet family in Barrie and continuing to sculpt his six-foot-four, 200-pound body into one he hopes will one day be prepared for the rigours of the NHL. Instead of being with his family and friends at the end of June, he’ll be celebrating his 19th birthday by texting his parents and two childhood friends who are in the Ukraine military.
The Golden Knights’ development camp in July will be a welcome distraction, but it will be a long and uncertain four months before training camps open in September. Billet families receive a stipend and four season tickets in return for putting up junior hockey players, but that obligation ends once the season is over. When Cholach didn’t have a home for the summer, though, his billets 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 billet mother Melanie Linseman who, with husband Kevin, housed Cholach and teammate Jacob Frasca this season. “And we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, of course.’ After the season, the assistant general manager (Rob Stewart) said ‘Of course, we’ll pay you for this,’ and we were like ‘Dude, we’re not expecting payment.’ This is an exceptional situation and we’ll do what we can. That is the least of our worries at the moment.”
By all accounts, Cholach the person is very much like Cholach the hockey player: stoic and even-keeled, not ruled by emotion. He has deep brown eyes and laughs easily. His English is excellent. He spent much of the first part of the invasion obsessed with following the happenings 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 hard. It just sits deep in me. I just keep it deep.”
Cholach has conditioned himself to spend less time on his phone because it can be so stressful. His billet roommate, Frasca, said that as news of the war was looming, Cholach would joke about it because like so many others he never thought Russia would actually invade. But once the war began, Frasca noticed that Cholach was spending more time in his room and increasingly distracted.
When the subject comes up at home, Linseman watches for Cholach’s body language and is quick to change the subject. On one occasion, Cholach scrolled through his phone, showing Frasca pictures 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 take out his phone and I’d have to say, ‘Man, just put it away. Don’t think about that right now.’”
There are no guarantees Cholach will ever play in the NHL, but he has an array of tools that could make him a serviceable fifth or sixth defenceman for a long time. The Golden Knights check in on him every week, and the Colts are firmly in his corner.
His future on the ice, though, is much clearer than his future off it. Cholach has no idea when he’ll see his family again, when he’ll be able to return home to pet his dog and see his friends. And with his two friends in the military, one of them on the front lines in Kyiv, there are obviously no guarantees for their safety.
“I don’t see 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 it will end soon. It’s so stupid. Deaths for nothing. It’s really sad.”
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