Midseason Ukrainian additions to GCU’s club hockey team take on college-athlete life amid war at home

Dmytro Kubrytskyi, goaltender for Grand Canyon University’s club hockey team, stands tall between the pipes as he represents his homeland of Ukraine. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

Mikhailo Simchuk, a forward for Grand Canyon University’s club hockey team, navigates the challenges of bringing his talent and determination from war-torn Ukraine to the rink. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Most freshmen hockey players who walk through the doors at Grand Canyon University are welcomed to the 74-year-old university with beautiful weather and an opportunity to represent their school for four years in the Arizona Collegiate Hockey Association.

The incoming class each year almost always has their parents present, or at least close enough to call for any help as they get acclimated to a whole new world of college life. Students come to GCU from all over the United States and even from the great white north, Canada.

Then there are those who have traveled 6,200 miles from a war-torn Ukraine. The phone calls they make are beyond nerve-wracking.

“Every time I hear about a missile attack, I call my mother. When she’s not answering after (the attacks), I start to really worry,” Dmytro Kubrytskyi said.

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Grand Canyon University’s men’s club hockey team officially welcomed its first European freshman players, forward Mikhailo Simchuk and Kubrytskyi, a goaltender, to its program at the beginning of the spring semester. They joined an Antelope team that last weekend swept the University of Central Oklahoma and closed out its regular season on a nine-game winning streak, finishing with a 19-13-1 record (9-10-1 in conference) in preparation for a bid to the ACHA Div. I Championships March 7-12. Grand Canyon is currently ranked 17th in the country, the team’s highest ranking in the program’s history.

“I was so excited to join,” Kubrytskyi said. “When I moved in on campus it was such a good time. We have such a nice campus and I am already enjoying my time here and I know I will enjoy this.”

Simchuk and Kubrytskyi are both 21 and from the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv. They both played junior hockey in western Canada last season, as Simchuk was in Alberta playing for the Brooks Bandits in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, while Kubrytskyi was playing for the Dauphin Kings in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.

After playing in juniors, Simchuk, who already decided he wanted to play high-level college hockey, was looking for a place to play when a connection was made between Antelopes associate coach John Olver and Simchuk’s father, Konstantin.

Konstantin played goalie for Olver in the past and the two continue to have a great relationship.

He introduced Olver to Mikhailo, and Mikhailo brought along Kubrytskyi. Both are adjusting to their first semester at Grand Canyon in their own ways, but they both have enjoyed being together.

“It’s been really nice (being with Dmytro), because it’s my first semester in college, and even in hockey the college level is different, so it’s really nice to have him here with,” Simchuk said. “We can both speak in our native language and not worry about a language barrier.”

While Simchuk and Kurbrytskyi are based in Phoenix, they make it a priority to reach out to their families regularly, especially as the conflict rages on between Ukraine and Russia.

It’s been nearly two years since Russia began invading Ukraine in February 2022. Even now, Kyiv is still a big target of attacks.

Grand Canyon University’s Ukrainian freshmen club hockey players Mikhailo Simchuk, left, and Dmytro Kubrytskyi embrace their team roles amid their adjustment to life in Arizona. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

Simchuk says it is still scary for his family when there are attacks in the city, but they have gotten used to it over time. He added that he calls his family and shares with them everything that is going on for him at university.

“I think the biggest problem is focusing on studying right now,” Simchuk said. “Last year, we had the exact same situation with the war. I prepared for it, so now I don’t think about it when I’m on the ice.”

However, they had to wait a little before getting onto the ice and playing games. Both players just missed the Fall 2023 semester deadline getting all the paperwork they needed turned in as international students.

“With what’s been going on over there and how they do things, it really is a process getting everything they need turned in,” said GCU coach Danny Roy. “We had them at practices to keep them in shape, and they were really good at sticking through it even though they couldn’t play.”

The two became eligible to play starting in January. Simchuk debuted for the Antelopes on Jan. 5, and Kubrytskyi made his debut one night later. Simchuk recorded 14 points in 11 games played so far, and Kubrytskyi posted a 5-1-0 record and a 92.3% save percentage in six games played.

“It’s been nice actually having them in an effective role now,” Roy said. “With them just practicing and us not really sure if we could actually get them in the lineup, they didn’t really feel totally a part of the team, but now since they’ve actually been in the lineup, they’ve been able to be a part of the team.”

(Video by Anna De La Cruz/Cronkite News)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Connor Manning expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Manning has interned as a sports play-by-play announcer, play analyst and radio show co-host for Varsity Media Foundation in Phoenix.

Anna De La Cruz AH-nuh de-la-KROOZ (she/hers)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Anna De La Cruz expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in digital audiences. De La Cruz has interned with Sun Devil Athletics, KVOA News 4 Tucson and the Cesar Chavez Foundation.

Bennett Silvyn BEH-nit SIL-vin
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Bennett Silvyn expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business, marketing and sports management. Silvyn has interned in marketing and social media for the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission, as a reporter for Arizona Foothills Magazine, in sponsorships for the Arizona Rattlers and in social and digital media for FC Tucson. Silvyn has also reported for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network and The State Press.