When the Colorado Academy Ice Hockey Team took the ice on March 8, they were playing for more than a State Championship. They were playing for peace in Ukraine, wearing helmet stickers with the Ukrainian flag and the name “Danny,” honoring their volunteer assistant coach, Danielo Kozachuk. Kozachuk’s parents, teenage brother, and grandparents all live in Kyiv. He is watching what is happening in his homeland with horror, even as he spends his days mentoring CA players who can empathize with his pain.
“As much as this game was a big deal for us, there are bigger things happening across the ocean,” says Team Captain Jack Pashel. “There are people having to flee because their homes don’t exist any longer, and they have had no say in the situation. Having that reminder is very grounding.”
Coach Richie Nelson ordered the stickers and made them optional for players. Every member of the team wore the colors of Ukraine.
“A team is a family, and Danny is part of the CA family,” says Nelson. “I could not imagine what he is going through, and I wanted to show love and support for him from all of us. We are here for him.”
Kozachuk did not know about the stickers until he walked into practice in the final days of the season. Asked how he reacted when he saw the CA players wearing the blue and yellow of his embattled country, he has no words for a moment. “CA families have been so supportive,” he says. “Even more than I imagined.”
‘I can’t believe this is happening’
For Kozachuk, who is 23 years old, coming to the United States to play hockey fulfilled a lifelong dream. His entire career had been in Europe, until he signed a contract to play with the Watertown Wolves, a minor league hockey team in New York, only to have his season canceled by COVID-19 after three games. Friendships brought him to Denver, where he met Nelson through local youth hockey and started helping the CA team.
In the days since Russia invaded Ukraine, Kozachuk has been glued to news reports and to his phone, communicating with his family every day. His parents and 16-year-old brother have fled Kyiv to live with friends near the border with Hungary. They are hoping to find a way to send his brother to safety in the United States. His maternal grandparents spent 12 hours stuck in traffic driving to a country home but, because of shelling, were afraid to drive any further. His father’s mother, who is in her eighties, did not want to leave her home and is seeking shelter in Kyiv.
“I cannot believe people are spending nights in shelters to escape rockets,” Kozachuk says. “I can’t believe this is happening. It is hard to understand emotionally and mentally, and I feel useless because I can’t even get there because all the airports are destroyed.”
‘It was the least we could do’
In the midst of the turmoil in his life, Kozachuk finds respite on the ice with CA players.
“When I am with the kids, we can joke around,” he says. “For two hours, I am not thinking about what is happening to my home.”
He is passionate in his defense of Ukraine.
“I am proud of my people because they are staying and fighting,” Kozachuk says. “I don’t think the people of Russia have been told the whole story. Please stop this war, please. It is a disaster what is going on, and no one wants this war. We didn’t attack, we just are defending ourselves. I wish it could all stop, and people could go back to their daily life.”
No matter the outcome of the game, Richie Nelson is proud of his players.
“Supporting Danny by wearing his country’s flag shows the true culture of CA students,” Nelson says. “They care not just for each other but for the world.”
“It was the least we could do,” Pashel adds. “It helps us appreciate where we live and what we have.”