Minnetonka’s Junior hockey community welcomes a new player from Ukraine

[anvplayer video=”5152173″ station=”998122″]

You could call it a Minnesota hockey miracle.

Playing goalie for the Minnetonka Junior Gold Blue Team is Maxsym Cherevatenko — known simply as “Max” to his friends and teammates.

“It’s a different level,” the 15-year-old player says quietly. “Hockey here is better than Ukraine. People are fun here.”

“He is happy to play hockey, he’s doing great in school, his English is getting really good, got a lot of friends,” says Chad Hess, whose family is hosting Max at their Minnetonka home. “Some down days here and there, he knows what’s going on with his family and his homeland. But life here has been really good for him, he’s been great.”

Max’s journey to Minnesota — from Kharkiv, Ukraine, his hometown, began four years ago.

During a skating exchange program, he stayed as a guest with the Hess family.

Max and 15-year-old Tyler Hess became fast friends and stayed in touch.

“We hosted Maxsym two or three summers in a row, and that’s how we got to know him,” Chad notes.

But then in February, Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

The two boys exchanged Snapchat messages about the fighting.

“Is it scary at night? Yeah, I will sleep on the floor.”

“It’s dangerous? Yeah.”

“Is it bad now? Yes.”

“I texted him how he was doing and he actually sent me a video and in the video, there’s like tanks and stuff, so I knew it was bad,” Tyler recalls.

So bad, that Max’s mother Lilya sent an urgent note to the Hess family.

Would they be willing to take in her son, in order to get him out of harm’s way?

“Mom reached out, said the boys are talking and anyway we can send Max to you, ‘cos it’s getting pretty bad here,” Chad remembers. “And my wife and I sat down, talked about it and said yeah, let’s do it, send Max over.”

Max — just 14 at the time, took a 24-hour bus ride to Poland, then boarded what would be a long international flight.

Arriving in Minnesota in March, he’s now a sophomore at Minnetonka Senior High School — adjusting the best he can.

“You look in his eyes and just see where he’s been, and I know he misses his family,” declares Minnetonka Junior Gold Blue coach Mike Woodley. “He misses his dad, he misses his mom, he misses his little sister, but this family took him in, and now we’re his hockey family. So we’re going to be there for him.”

The coach says Max is playing competitively, skating with boys three years older than him.

Woodley says the Minnetonka High School Varsity coach is taking notice.

Meanwhile — the Hess family stays in touch with Max’s parents — who’ve left Kharkiv for a safer area to the west.

Lilya has thanked them for taking care of her son — posting a message that says “wonderful people with kind hearts.”

But the war is a hard and dangerous truth — that rages on.

“We got a lot of messages where there’s no electricity, no heat, no water,” Chad explains. “Their home got bombed, windows busted out, they had to leave three hours away from their home.”

Max says he talked with his family every day.

For now, he’s found a new home — and perhaps some hope.

“It’s hard to be without family here, I’m glad I’m here,” he says. “I have Tyler here and we’re best friends and he’s helped me a lot.”

For now, Max’s stay in Minnesota is open-ended.

For these teen players — all of this is a lesson in kindness and caring, that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives, Chad says.

“Happy they reached out to us and trusted us so it’s been a great experience,” he smiles. “Really good for our kids to see that, how to help someone in need and at a young age, so it’s been good for them too.”