Maksym Shtepa headed from his new home in Quebec City to Parliament Hill on Friday with one goal in mind: to present President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with the hockey jersey he was wearing on his back.
The 13-year-old and his teammate Matvii Kulish were able to do so alongside Zelenskyy and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a hallway of the Parliament building.
“Today we met our hero, it was like a dream for us,” Shtepa said. “It’s a great day for us, a great moment.”
The shirt is printed with Zelenskyy’s name on the back and is adorned with the colors of the Ukrainian flag. In the center of the front is a red embroidery-like pattern that represents the national costume of Ukraine, the vyshyvanka.
“He’s a very sweet person, he was very tired but he was still talking to us,” Shtepa said of the meeting.
The boys were joined by Olivier Hubert-Benoit, who is currently hosting another Ukrainian hockey player in his home.
“The kids were very excited,” he says. “They were running on adrenaline and very happy to be able to experience this once-in-a-lifetime moment.”
This is the first time either of them have seen, much less come face to face, with Zelenskyy, who is on a two-day visit to Canada, his first since last year’s Russian invasion.
On Friday he addressed the House of Commons in an effort to drum up support for the war effort in Ukraine.
“It’s a little scary there now,” says Shtepa.
Shtepa first visited Canada in February when his team participated in the Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament. Recently, he and five of his teammates received special temporary visas that allow them to study and play hockey in Quebec City until it is safe to return home.
“We saw really good people here,” says Shtepa. “It’s a really good place for us.”
Shtepa says he hopes Zelenskyy’s new jersey serves as a reminder that there is great hockey in Ukraine.
“We want you to feel proud to be here, we are at a high level [playing] level.”