People who know me know that sports has a big place in my life. Growing up I loved to play sports, in high school and into university. I was never the best athlete out there, but I was alright and won a handful of awards in my day. You’d never know it to look at my out-of-shape person today, but sports mean a lot to me. Growing up I’d play just about anything that we could afford as a family, but my two favourite sports were basketball and football (sorry, I can’t call it soccer, it just doesn’t feel right to me). They even influenced the naming of this blog, as the “Magpie” in its name comes from the Newcastle United Football Team in England, known as the Magpies. They are my favourite football team and I follow them with the love of a true fan.

Growing up where I did, I took all the chances I could to watch a good football match. Being close to Winnipeg, there were only so many options but to be fair, that’s been the Canadian experience for most of us. Unless you live near Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, there hadn’t been constant professional football to follow in Canada since the very early 90’s, and even then, it was a stretch to even refer to it as that. But that changed in 2019, with the creation of the Canadian Premier League, a place where young Canadians would hone their craft here at home and chase their dreams in professional football. While I still follow my Magpies (along with Toronto FC and Paris Saint-Germain) with passion, I came to have a new club to cheer for; Winnipeg’s Valour FC. The naming of the club was inspired by the story of Winnipeg’s Valour Road, which you’ve likely heard about on TV before from this Heritage Minute:

So as it is with most of the clubs and teams I follow, I follow them on social media. Given the events taking place in Ukraine right now, I have been on there a lot following the horror that is taking place and the West’s response to it. It was in doing so today that the following Twitter post popped before my eyes, and suddenly two worlds came together in a way I wouldn’t have expected just a week ago:

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his forced into Ukraine in a craven violation of their sovereignty, we’ve seen the repercussions of this spread out wide like a tidal wave in the middle of the ocean. We’re seeing sanctions and punishment rightly being levelled against Russia and Belarus for their actions, in some cases from organizations we never thought would do so. I mean FIFA is about as sketchy an organization as there is, yet after a few days, even they dropped the hammer on both nations for their actions in Ukraine. It’s been a breathtaking thing to behold.

Yet while we’ve seen all of these actions correctly taken against the Putin and Lukashenko regimes, we’ve also seen another wave of reactions the likes of which we’ve rarely seen since World War II. We’ve seen Ukrainians from all walks of live put down their tools of work and pick up automatic weapons to fight. We’ve seen then step forward from all sectors, professional sports include. One example is professional tennis player Sergiy Stakhovsky, who has just retired from the sport after the Australian Open in January. We’ve heard stories of entire football teams hanging up their boots and enlisting to protect their country. Here in North America, it’s the kind thing we haven’t seen since the 1940’s.

But included within that mobilization was this story that came up on Valour FC’s Twitter feed that just hit me in a different way. Svyatik Artemenko was a name I honestly didn’t know, a little-known third string goalkeeper from Winnipeg. He just turned 21, having finished his schooling at the University of Guelph and helping to lead his team to an Ontario University Athletics championship. That led him to the next opportunity in his life, signing with Ukrainian second division team FC Podylla. He signed his contract the day before Russia invaded. One whole day before.

Once that invasion happened, he could have walked away and left Ukraine to return to the safety of Winnipeg. Even though he was born in the Ukraine, he has no Ukrainian passport and is fully a Canadian citizen. If he had walked away and returned to Canada, no one would have blamed him or held it against him. Instead he made a decision, and called one of his former coaches Patrick Di Stefani to tell him about it”

“I talked to him about five minutes before he was hopping on a train to go to the battlefront,” said Di Stefani following Valour’s training session Tuesday. “We had a good conversation. He told me he was at peace, and this was something he wanted to do. We talked about football, too, because he had just signed a contract, but his entire team had signed up to go to war and he said, ‘I’m not a coward. I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.’

Source: valourfc.canpl.ca

“I’m not a coward”. I don’t think that anyone would have thought he was if he decided to leave, but he saw all of his teammates step up. He decided to join with them and support them in this dangerous moment, even though he could have left for the safe harbour of Winnipeg. It’s hard not to admire the courage and conviction of his beliefs. But there was a quote later in the piece quoted above, from a conversation withThe Winnipeg Free Press, that really hit me the hardest:

“The road to your dreams is never easy. Unfortunately, the road to achieving my goal involves me giving up the dream for a little bit to go and defend my country. “We can’t continue playing soccer until the war is over. We need to end this war to continue playing the season, so this is part of the proves in achieving my goal.”

Source: valourfc.canpl.ca

“The road to achieving my goal involves me giving up the dream for a little bit to go and defend my country”. Let those words sink in, especially given everything that we’ve experienced here in Canada over the past two years of pandemic. For the past month we saw groups of disgruntled and anti-social people disrupt the lives of thousands and demand the overthrow of our very democracy because they’ve been asked to wear makes, get a vaccine and look out for one another. Millions of Canadians did their part, “giving up their dreams for a little bit” to defend their families, loved ones and neighbours, yet this other group refused and cried tyranny. They yelled about “freedom” without thinking of any responsibility to anyone else. It was a moment that was disturbing and surreal then, but looks even more infantile now when we see what is happening to the people of Ukraine.

Coming from that experience and likely seeing stories about these things happening back home in Winnipeg, one wouldn’t be surprised if that had a negative effect. Yet there he is in Ukraine, witnessing real tyranny, a real attack on democracy and seeing his teammates drop everything they have worked for to do their part to stop it from happening. And when faced with that, he didn’t repeat the selfish lines that have been heard back in Canada. He did what he knew was right, and decided to fight alongside his teammates. He came to the realization that he needed to do his part to end this aggression against Ukraine in order for him to be able to continue to chase his dreams. To reach his goal, to achieve his dreams, he had to give it up.

I can’t help but admire that kind of bravery and clarity of thought. By stepping up as he has, he’s shown what true valour is and what it means. He’s following the example of brave Winnipeggers who came before him like Corporal Leo Clarke, Sergeant-Major Frederick William Hall, and Lieutenant Robert Shankland, the soldiers whose actions inspired the name of the club he played for. I know that going forward we’re going to hear more and more stories like these, but this one just hit me very differently. Back at home in Canada we’re praying for you Svyatik, and we look forward to the day when your sacrifice can end, and you can continue to pursue your dreams on the pitch. Slava Ukraini!