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Ukrainian soccer players spread message of peace, hope in Hermantown matches

Many youth players from the war-ravaged country are refugees.

Soccer players in blue and yellow jerseys
Ukrainian soccer player Chris Nechyporuk leans on teammates Elina Nechyporuk and Dariia Karaman while holding a Ukrainian flag while getting ready for a team photo during the Hope for Ukraine Youth Refugee Tour at Stebner Field on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Hermantown.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Ukrainian youth soccer coach Rudolf (Rudy) Balazhynetz went into a Zoom call with Americans Peter Wohler and Vincent Licari in April having no idea what the men were going to ask him, but he promised a friend and contact he would do it.

Balazhynetz is the type to deliver on his promises.

“They asked me, ‘Hey, we’re looking for a coach, and if he’d be an English speaker, that’d be wonderful,’” Balazhynetz recalled. “I said, ‘OK, what more do you want?’

They said, ‘If he would have a U-14/U-16 team.'

I said, ‘OK, what more?’ and they said, ‘If he’d be a Christian, this would be God’s plan.’

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I said, ‘OK, you have a bingo,’ and they said, ‘What do you mean, we have a bingo?’”

The Americans were baffled if Balazhynetz even knew what "bingo" meant, but he knew full well what it meant. Balazhynetz, a pastor and the director of Family of Christ, a charity providing help and hope for thousands in war-torn Ukraine, checked all the boxes for Source, an urban outreach based out of Minneapolis that works with at-risk people.

The Hope for Ukraine Youth Refugee Tour came from this partnership, including the USA Cup-Minnesota Tour on July 7-26, with scheduled stops at the National Sports Center in Blaine and in Rochester. About 35 Ukrainians are taking part, many of them refugees, with about an equal number of coaches and chaperones.

The tour was in Hermantown on Tuesday for girls and boys friendlies (exhibition games) at Stebner Park. With only about 10 Ukrainian girls players, the girls teams were mixed, with Hermantown players switching sides to even out the rosters. Then came the boys’ U-16 match, with Balazhynetz’s elite FC Minaj touring team rolling to a 7-0 victory over Hermantown’s defending state championship team.

Tuesday afternoon was certainly not something you see every day at Stebner Park — the Ukrainian version of the U.S. “soccer mom,” speaking in a foreign tongue but clearly getting everything in order before everyone filed out of the Honda minivan.

Some things are international.

Soccer players in blue and yellow jerseys
Names of players are displayed on jerseys in the Ukrainian alphabet, a variation of Cyrillic script, during the Hope for Ukraine Youth Refugee Tour at Stebner Field on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Hermantown.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Brice Hansen is vice president and competitive coordinator for the Hermantown Youth Soccer Association and recalled how this all started on his end.

“I had gotten a phone call from their U.S. contact here, and it was a little weird, he was a little coy, I didn’t really know what he was getting at,” Hansen said. “But then about two minutes into the conversation he goes, ‘How’d you guys like to play the Ukrainian national boys team?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’d like that. That’d be cool.’ It came together fairly quickly after that. It’s a pretty great honor to be part of their tour through Minnesota.”

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Hermantown nice

Despite the mutual interest, making the connection from Ukraine to Minnesota to Hermantown wasn’t without its share of hurdles. It’s all hands on deck back home, with Ukrainian men age 18-60 banned from leaving the country, with exceptions.

“We didn’t know until the very last minute they were going to get their visas, but everything came through,” Hansen said. “The coaches were able to get special clearance to leave the country, so that was awesome.”

Hermantown rolled out the blue and yellow carpet. A dozen host families came on board, local restaurants donated all the food for three days and a couple businesses sponsored an excursion to Gooseberry Falls on the North Shore.

“Hermantown is a very hospitable place,” Hansen said. “It’s been a really great experience for us to show them how great our community is and to share that with the Ukrainian team.”

Soccer players in blue and yellow jerseys
Girls from Ukraine Hope scrimmage with Hermantown soccer players during the Hope for Ukraine Youth Refugee Tour at Stebner Field on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Hermantown.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Their efforts didn’t go unnoticed.

“It’s a very friendly state,” said 15-year-old Andrii (Andrew) Ketsuk, who plays center back for FC Minaj. “I like it. After just a few days I want to live here for life. What a very good state, very friendly people. Everyone wants to take your photo and to hug.”

After clearing up issues with his visa in Paris just after July 4, Ketsuk was on his way to America. “It’s a miracle I’m here,” he said.

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Braden Fulda, 16, is a left wing for the Hermantown team. His family hosted four of the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians left Wednesday, were set to be in Rochester Thursday, in Minneapolis Saturday and then flying out Monday (Rochester had to be scratched as they weren't able to secure enough volunteer support on short notice).

“I immediately said ‘yes,’” Fulda said of hosting the Ukrainians. “It’s just helping people out. They’ve been through a lot of rough stuff lately.”

Most of the players got to spend a night tubing, Jet Skiing and having a water balloon fight Monday on Pike Lake. While those types of activities are commonplace for many Minnesotans, it was a new experience for the Ukrainians.

“Just seeing people fall off the Jet Skis and tossed out the back … they didn’t know how to lean into the corners and stuff, so they got swamped into the water,” Fulda said. “We focused on making them feel at home here, and having them feel comfortable. It makes me feel good helping out somebody."

Soccer players in blue and yellow jerseys
Girls from Ukraine Hope scrimmage with Hermantown soccer players during the Hope for Ukraine Youth Refugee Tour at Stebner Field on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Hermantown.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Focused on soccer

While the war inevitably came up, Ketsuk appreciated the emphasis on playing soccer and having fun. The tour has been a release for these boys and girls.

“Now we’re in America, it’s great,” Ketsuk said. “We can stay focused on football. It’s hard mentally to stay focused on football when you have war in Ukraine.”

Soccer players in blue and yellow jerseys
Ukrainian soccer player Andrii Ketsuk talks about the war back home during the Hope for Ukraine Youth Refugee Tour at Stebner Field on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Hermantown.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

While most of FC Minaj, including Ketsuk, is from the safer western part of Ukraine, before embarking on their trip, FC Minaj arranged to have one of their players see his father in a rougher region.

“His father is in the army fighting on the front lines,” explained Balazhynetz. “They saw each other for just 10 minutes and then we had to get out of the city. We got an air signal that we’re getting attacked.”

Balazhynetz’s FC Minaj team, pronounced "min-EYE," is elite. They finished second in the two gold-level tournaments they played in the Twin Cities. Long before the war started they played all over Europe, but nothing like this, “no crossing oceans,” as Rudy says. Minaj players such as Ketsuk want to one day play professionally.

Soccer players in blue and yellow jerseys
Surrounded by his team, Ukrainian youth soccer coach Rudolf (Rudy) Balazhynetz, talks to Hermantown soccer players during the Hope for Ukraine Youth Refugee Tour at Stebner Field on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Hermantown.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Just watching the bearded Balazhynetz interact with the players, American and Ukrainian alike, during Tuesday’s skills camp, the 34-year-old married father of two's coaching skills were on full display.

“Coaching is one of the awesome gifts, to encourage and teach for the future,” he said.

Balazhynetz, pronounced "bah-LAH-ghee-netz," said Ukrainians are in a constant fight against Russian propaganda meant to destabilize and destroy their country.

That is one of the messages of his trip, as is his belief in the power of soccer as a unifying force across the globe.

“It’s amazing so many kids are involved in soccer here because how many people think America is football, baseball and basketball? Soccer is an all-world means where a lot of people could help each other in the future,” he said. “The sport is good for socialization. Soccer can bring love, support and encouragement. Like Jesus said, always be like a kid. Share everything with love and peace and smiles.”

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Fifteen-year-old Daria Devko, of Kyiv, said she believes that knowledge is power, and she hopes to educate other Duluthians about the war in Ukraine. She performs an original speech about why the war is relevant in the United States, and also helps teach refugees English in her spare time.

Shattered country will need to rebuild

While soccer is the No. 1 sport for boys in Ukraine, that’s not the case for girls, according to Nina Gilliam, who was helping Source with the event Tuesday. She said volleyball, gymnastics and serious dance are more popular.

The Ukrainian girls on the tour are much less competitive than their boys counterparts but had interesting stories to tell, as all of them are refugees.

Vasylisa (Lisa) Babkina, 13, plays defense and is from Soledar, Ukraine, in the Bakhmut Raion, Donetsk Oblast. The Donetsk Oblast is the region Russia is focusing much of its war efforts on right now.

Soccer players in blue and yellow jerseys
Vasylisa Babkina talks about her experience with the war in her country during the Hope for Ukraine Youth Refugee Tour at Stebner Field on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Hermantown.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

While she still has relatives in Ukraine, Babkina’s family, her father, mother and five siblings, were able to flee to Norway, where her mother has friends.

“It was really scary,” Babkina said.

When asked the scariest part, she said, “Because war is always scary.”

Babkina said food was hard to come by — the supply chains shattered — and it was incredibly loud. The answer for that was simple.

“Because bombs fall near my town,” she said.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which started Feb. 24 but had been brewing for years, has created a humanitarian crisis in Europe not seen since World War II.

It’s been hard for the local players to fathom the war in Ukraine.

“It’s hard to process when you really think about it,” Fulda said.

Soccer players in blue and yellow jerseys
The logo worn on the jerseys of Ukrainian players during the Hope for Ukraine Youth Refugee Tour at Stebner Field on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Hermantown.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“Nobody knows when the rockets will come back, and where they will blow, and what city,” Balazhynetz said. “There are cities being destroyed by rockets every day.”

Balazhynetz’s Family of Christ charity, based out of Uzhhorod in Western Ukraine, on the Slovakian border, has now provided upward of a million meals to Ukrainians.

While the scope of that is enormous, Rudy put the crisis in Minnesota terms that are easier to understand.

“Minnesota is a state with 5 million people,” Balazhynetz said. “In our country, 5 million people have left the country and 5 million inside the country are displaced. Just think about that. This would be an empty state. So this is big and we’ll need help. It’s going to take five or 10 years to rebuild our country.”

Balazhynetz said he came to the right place for those seeking help.

“This is America. This is a big dream,” he said. “People would ask you sometimes, if you had a chance or you’re dreaming, someday, you’ll go to America, and you would say ‘No, that would not be possible.’ But now, it is possible.”

Ukrainian humanitarian crisis

To donate: Source, the Minnesota nonprofit sponsoring the Hope for Ukraine Youth Refugee Tour, is looking to raise funds to cover tour expenses in addition to humanitarian and medical aid to send back to Ukraine with the soccer players. For those who wish to contribute, go to sourcemn.org/ukraineyouth-for-ukraineaid or text UkraineYouth to 91999.

Soccer players in blue and yellow jerseys
Girls from Ukraine Hope and Hermantown soccer players greet each other after a scrimmage during the Hope for Ukraine Youth Refugee Tour at Stebner Field on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Hermantown.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Soccer players in blue and yellow jerseys
Ukrainian youth soccer coach Rudolf (Rudy) Balazhynetz autographs the shirt of Paxton Templer, 10 , of Hermantown during the Hope for Ukraine Youth Refugee Tour at Stebner Field on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Hermantown.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
More by Jon Nowacki
Former Greyhound taking advantage of second stint with his hometown team.

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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