From holopchi to hockey: Ukrainian culture touches all corners of Edmonton

The Viter Ukrainian Folk Choir sang the Canadian national anthem in English and Ukrainian before puck drop between the Edmonton Oilers and Washington Capitals.

EDMONTON — At the Ukrainian Orbit Store, the stock seldom gets picked over.

A woman named Luba searches for a Ukrainian flag lapel pin — “They all were sold last week,” — or a necktie in the Easter egg colours of a Ukraine flag. “I have only these belts,” she laments, handing over a light blue and yellow braided sash used by Ukrainian dancers.

It’ll have to do.

In a city where Stawnichy’s Mundare Sausage House — or the north end’s Shumka Ukrainian Restaurant — might get their share of non-Ukrainians walking through the door, Luba’s place — a haven for ex-pats looking for genuine Ukrainian books, food and dress — has been picked through by Edmontonians in search of any way to show their support for the Ukrainian people.

Welcome to “The Chuck” — short for “Edmonchuk” — a nickname that has endured since long before this 50-something local can remember.

It is here where Russian national Alex Ovechkin will stand through a Ukrainian version of O Canada on Wednesday night courtesy of the Viter Choir and Folk Ensemble, spared the full Ukrainian anthem only by the NHL’s decree that a team may play just two anthems before a game. On this night Viter will sing the Canadian and American anthems, but Ukraine will be first in the hearts of Oilers fans, a sentiment-driven home by a visit from Ovechkin and his Russian teammates Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov.

“You watch what’s going on in Ukraine,” said Edmonton-born, former NHLer Dave Babych. “It’s just awful.”

As if to set a mood of acceptance before games in Calgary and Edmonton, the Capitals sent out this news release on Tuesday afternoon.

Edmonton is not Philadelphia, where they once pelted Santa Claus with snowballs. Folks here are Canadian polite, and appreciative of who Ovechkin has become in their preferred sport, as he chases the all-time goal-scoring record held by Wayne Gretzky — both a former Oiler and of Ukrainian descent.

But they’re also proud of where their forefathers came from, or the forefathers of the people they grew up next to, in a province of nearly 4.5 million that counts about 345,000 people of Ukrainian descent.

Here, a little Ukrainian goalie named Igor Karpenko was named to a World Junior Media All-Star team in 1995, awarded for playing his heart out and becoming a local hero, not for the 1-6 record his team took away from Edmonton.

On Wednesday fans are expected to apply a Ukrainian full-court press, knowing that Ovechkin has been a vocal supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their display will be more prideful than predatory, more flag than flagellation, we would predict.

“Ach, leave the poor guy alone,” said Bob Olynyk, a legendary minor hockey volunteer of 55 years in these parts. “He’s in a Catch-22 position, you know? The poor guy lives in Russia. So he supported Putin. I mean, he was Putin’s friend. Big deal. Lots of guys supported Putin. Lots of people supported Trump!

“I mean, he hasn’t said anything. He’s just shutting his mouth and staying out of it. Why would we want to chastise someone who has done what he’s done for the game?”

Like so many Albertans, Olynyk’s family roots lie in Ukraine. His life has been lived in the hockey rinks of Alberta and Western Canada; his Auntie Irene ended up in Viking, Alta., where the Sutter boys all rolled through her classroom, one after the next.

As a kid, the final drop on Olynyk’s Edmonton Journal newspaper route was a hardware store that was torn down when they built the old Northlands Coliseum. His was a north-end upbringing that steered every young hockey player into the Maple Leafs Athletic Club, whose executive board and coaching ranks were as Ukrainian as borscht and Paska bread.

Same with the Babych brothers, Dave and Wayne.

“Yep,” said Dave. “We grew up in the Beverly area. Newton (community league). On the other side of the tracks.”

The Babychs were joined by the Bros. Yaremchuk — Ken and Gary — both of whom played for the real Maple Leafs, in Toronto. There wasn’t a north end team without its share of Ukrainian blood back in those days, and the bar was usually open late at the old Maple Leaf clubhouse, which served as a social club to the local rinks, the old Santa Rosa or Londonderry Arenas.

“I played with Pete Steblyk,” Babych recalled. “We had the Masers, the Melnychuks, the Melnyks, the Yaremchuks… It went on and on. I mean everyone had a membership at Stawnichy’s Kielbasa House.

“Pete Peeters?” he said of the old Philadelphia Flyers goalie, another Edmontonian. “I don’t know if he was Ukrainian, but I know he wants to be one.”

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The first Ukrainians immigrated to Alberta in the early 1890s, arriving in a land of cereal crops and open prairie not unlike what they had left behind in Eastern Europe. The first documented Ukrainian immigrant was Ivan Pylypow in 1891, and the scariest brothers at my Bantam AA tryouts in about 1978 were the Pylypow brothers.

I have no idea if they were descendants of Ivan.

The famous “Uke Line,” an all-Ukrainian trio that played for the Boston Bruins — featuring Edmonton-born Johnny Bucyk, Port Colbourne, Ont.’s Bronco Horvath and Lethbridge, Alta.’s Vic Stasiuk — was given its name when they came together for the mid-50s Edmonton Flyers of the old Western Hockey League.

Around then, as farmers moved to the city for jobs, their boys took to the outdoor rinks that once dotted every community in this city. The fathers became coaches and organizers, pillars of Edmonton’s hockey community.

“It was the northeast end, and they were lunch bucket, blue-collar people, eh?” Olynyk said. “That’s what it was. You had Swift’s, and Canada Packers, and Burns.”

Three meatpacking plants where fathers and mothers worked to raise their families. That meant baseball gloves in the summer, and hockey gear in the winter.

Today, the Babych brothers are involved with a group called Canadian Friends of Hockey in Ukraine. With the help of Edmonton’s Sport Central, they send equipment to kids in Ukraine and — prior to Covid and the current Russian invasion — held hockey clinics for kids in Kiev.

On Wednesday, the proceeds from the Oilers’ nightly 50/50 draw will go towards families in Ukraine.

At Discount Flags and Flagpoles, they’ve still got a limited supply of Ukrainian car flags and small handheld flags, but the big ones are sold out. The Flag Shop received a new order of the light blue and yellow Ukrainian flags only Tuesday afternoon.

Like holopchi at Christmastime, they’re going fast.

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