Anchorage Wolverines hockey player Bohdan Panasenko woke up last Thursday to a text from his mother about shelling at the Ukrainian border. This week, the 18-year-old from Ukraine watched a video showing the shelling had reached his home city’s main square.
Panasenko, who plays forward for the Wolverines, is from Kharkiv — the second-largest city in Ukraine, which is under attack by the Russian military. Panasenko’s father Oleg is now in Ukraine and volunteered to fight for the country. His mother Inna and 14-year-old brother Yaroslav fled to neighboring Romania and are hoping to eventually reunite with Panasenko in Alaska.
Despite the stress weighing on him, Panasenko, the Wolverines’ No. 28, stayed calm and focused during a Tuesday practice at Ben Boeke Ice Arena in Anchorage. A fast skater, proficient with stick handling, he seemed to go through the drills effortlessly. When practice was over, he spoke in Russian about his experience watching the war unfold from abroad.
Panasenko said he feels proud of his country’s ability to resist a military giant like Russia.
“You can elevate your self-esteem by looking at how Ukraine can defend herself,” Panasenko said. “You can see that we can fight back.”
Still, the shelling that started at the Ukraine border has now moved to Ukrainian cities big and small, including downtown Kharkiv, which is familiar and dear to Panasenko. In videos posted to social media, Panasenko says he is watching buildings in his neighborhood being destroyed.
“They sent a rocket yesterday, did you hear?” Panasenko said. “How can you send a rocket downtown where civilians are driving their cars?”
Panasenko said he calls his father daily, offering him words of support, but also expresses admiration for his strength. He said that if he was at a different point in life, he would choose to fight as well.
“If I had built my own family — if I achieved my life goal — of course, I would enlist,” Panasenko said.
When Panasenko thinks about Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million people, he said he thinks about Ukrainians who stayed, like some of his friends, and are now sheltering in their apartments or fighting like his father. Kharkiv holds childhood memories for him — like days spent with the people he loves and his time skating at the local ice rink.
“Honestly, I hope that it’s intact, but I don’t know,” he said about the rink. “I hope we’ll still be able to go back.”
Getting to safety
Some might say that war came to Ukraine overnight, but premonitions of war were in the air long before last Wednesday, Panasenko said.
For weeks and months, the news developed gradually. When Russian troops started approaching the border, Ukrainian people like Panasenko’s family were expecting escalation, but not war.
“They believed until the last moment that it wouldn’t come to this,” Panasenko said.
Waking up to the news about the Russian invasion last Thursday, Panasenko said he felt disbelief.
“I woke up — it was night in Ukraine and morning here,” he said, “and my mother texted me, ‘They’re shelling us!’ ”
Panasenko’s family decided to move to the west of Ukraine, and a few hours later, one of the first strikes hit their hometown.
With Ukraine becoming less safe, Panasenko reached out to his host family, as well as the Wolverines; both have stepped up to help.
“The family is great; they helped me a lot,” he said. “The team is helping too.”
The team started assisting the family with filing paperwork for traveling as quickly as they could, said the Wolverines’ vice president of communications, Kari Ellsworth. They also spread the word about the family, and more Alaskans and their acquaintances around the world stepped up too.
“I don’t think that the family has spent a night without shelter or a day without transportation during this whole ordeal,” Ellsworth said. “I mean, we’ve seen the photos; that’s not the case for everyone.”
Panasenko’s mother and brother originally planned to go to Poland but have ended up in Romania, also a designated safe haven country.
Panasenko’s Anchorage host mother reached out to a childhood friend now living in Romania, who offered Inna and Yaroslav Panasenko a place to stay. The Wolverines have also reached out to Alaska’s congressional delegation for help getting Panasenko’s family to the U.S., Ellsworth said.
Now they are working to get an expedited interview for a U.S. travel visa. Panasenko also hopes his father will eventually be able to reunite with the family in Alaska.
“In the end, Alaskans help Alaskans,” said Hellen Payares, who works for the Wolverines’ marketing team and had previously helped bring a family from Afghanistan to Anchorage.
Coping through hockey
Meanwhile, Panasenko stays occupied with skating in Anchorage. Hockey is a constant in his life.
“Every person has their own psychology, their own approach to coping,” he said. “For me, it’s necessary to stay informed, but also to do your own thing. Practice is practice, work is work.”
Panasenko’s passion for the sport started by following his father’s footsteps.
According to Wolverines head coach Mike Aikens, who calls Panasenko “Bo,” Panasenko’s father played professional hockey for 13 years.
“He was a good player, and he played a couple of years in this league years ago, in the Detroit area,” Aikens said. “I think Bo is kind of taking the same path.”
When Panasenko was 11, he moved to the Donbas region of Ukraine to live with his grandfather and play for the local team. Then in pre-pandemic times, between the ages of 15 to 18, he lived and played in Ukraine, Finland and Latvia. In September, Panasenko moved to Alaska, where he became the first Ukrainian player to join the Anchorage Wolverines. There is only one other Ukrainian currently in the league, playing for a team in Amarillo, Texas.
Panasenko’s goal is to play hockey in an American college, and then eventually he dreams of playing pro hockey in the National Hockey League. So far, eight Ukrainian players have made it to the NHL.
Aikens said Panasenko plays “hard and physical” for the Wolverines and is “an excellent puck handler,” unique in how he combines “his puck skills, skating, physical strength and competitiveness.”
“When players get to come to the rink, it’s time for them to be able to forget about some of the other things that are going on in their lives,” Aikens said. “Here, they’re with their teammates, and during practice, they can focus on the task at hand.”
Aikens is a longtime coach, but dealing with a situation like this is new. Despite the challenges and the language barrier, he does his best to support Panasenko.
Panasenko’s English is getting better and better since his move to Anchorage, but if there’s something that Aikens really needs to communicate to him, he sends him a text message, making it easier for Panasenko to translate.
The Anchorage Wolverines published a statement on Feb. 28 to express solidarity with Panasenko: “While the attack is devastating, Ukraine stays resilient and we remain inspired by the strength of the entire Panasenko family. Today, and all days, we stand with Bo.”
In addition to supporting No. 28, Aikens said the Wolverines are also working to acquire skates and hockey equipment for his younger brother, who also plays the sport. The team wants to make sure that when Yaroslav gets to Anchorage, he can have a sense of normalcy by engaging in the activities that he likes.
“The hockey world is a small, tight-knit community where organizations help each other, teams help each other,” Aikens said. “And now, this is bigger than that: People from around the world are trying to help, and it’s really special that way.”
(The ownership group for the Wolverines includes Aaron Schutt, Ryan Binkley, Kai Binkley Sims, John Ellsworth Jr. and Jay Frawner. Binkley and Sims are part of the Binkley Co., which owns the Anchorage Daily News. The Binkleys are not involved in news coverage.)
Daily News reporter Iris Samuels contributed.