How a former Atlanta Thrashers guard ended up helping war refugees in Poland

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Ashlee Steed is a flight attendant, private pilot and international humanitarian volunteer. She’s not really a hockey fan: “If you sit me down in front of a sporting event, I’m like, ‘How many hoops before a touchdown?'”

Earlier this spring, Steed, who is from Fredericton, New Brunswick, used part of his vacation to work in Przemysl, a Polish town less than 20 kilometers from the border with Ukraine. She worked inside a warehouse – sorting through donations of clothing, toiletries and medical supplies – but she also saw people arriving in town with no manageable way to transport their belongings, old or new. .

They needed suitcases.

“Being a flight attendant drove me crazy,” she said. “Because it’s so hard to see single mothers traveling with children when they to have all the right equipment. And most of these refugees are single mothers with children or elderly people.

Steed raised funds from friends and family in Canada and she decided to buy as many suitcases as she could find. Her rental sedan wasn’t exactly spacious, so she texted Michael Garnett, another Canadian who volunteers to help those fleeing the Russian invasion.

He had rented a nine-passenger van to transport refugees from the border to shelters around town, and he drove it to a department store – a “European Costco” – and secured 50 new suitcases. It wasn’t until Steed posted photos on social media that she was alerted to some of Garnett’s most famous past.

“Hey wait,” she said, “Are you a big deal or what?”

“No,” he said. “I’m not.”

Garnett made 24 appearances in net for the Atlanta Thrashers during the 2005-06 season, where he won seven of his last 11 games before the doomed expansion franchise buried him in the Atlanta Thrashers. minors. He struggled in the American Hockey League for another season before finding a more lucrative – and possibly more useful – new home in the KHL.

“What was cool was that he’s practically fluent in Russian, having played in the KHL,” Steed said. “So it’s super practical there. Super humble guy.

Garnett, who is originally from Saskatoon but lives in Calgary, has deep family roots in Ukraine, all the way from his mother’s side to the maternal branch of his father’s family tree. After Russia invaded in February, Garnett spent weeks trying to think of ways to help.

“I was upset because I was like, ‘Who are these assholes? “said his wife, Rebecca Rider. “But I couldn’t believe how much of an impact it had on him and how emotional he was about it. I was quite surprised at the depth of this anger and frustration.

“He said right away, ‘I just feel like I need to be there. “”

Through hockey connections, Garnett found a contact near the border. He traveled all over Europe looking for a big van. He found one in Bratislava, Slovakia, for $1,000 a month — they rented three times as much in Poland — and went abroad with Rider.

Their trip was completely self-funded. They registered with the local authorities and started their careers as volunteer shuttle drivers. Garnett and Rider picked up refugees at the border and drove them to aid stations. They drove them from the rescue centers to the train station. They rode all day and all night.

They posted a video on their YouTube channel, signaling a dramatic departure from the usual content they might post. Their channel, “Fun Way Round”, is filled with videos of the young and attractive couple on adventures in exotic, sunny locations.

In a video the couple posted from Poland in April, they took viewers through a tour of their average day, from the border to the train station to help centers and food stops. A passenger told them how he hid in his basement in Luhansk for a month as Russian tanks attacked the city.

Garnett and Rider also drove two refugees in their 60s, who were caring for a teenage grandson with special needs. The grandmother told them that she hadn’t eaten for 3 p.m.

“Right now, it’s amazing how tough you can be, ‘Let’s go, it’s 3 a.m., and your family is in another shelter, so let’s get in the van,'” Rider said. “But when you actually have a moment to sit back and let the emotions hit you, it’s heartbreaking. It’s devastating.

“We were going to McDonald’s for five coffees a day and I was collapsing in the bathroom. You can relate to these people in their life stages and life journeys, and you can’t imagine what they’re going through.

Garnett has spent a decade of his career playing overseas, mostly in Russia. The KHL paid him more than he could have earned in North America or European leagues. He saw other players coming from North America and then quickly leaving because they couldn’t adapt to the life or the culture.

“It’s because they thought it was stupid that you had to shake hands with everyone every morning,” Garnett said. “It’s like this: you walk around the locker room when you get there and you shake hands with every single person every day.”

He studied the language. He estimates that he still has 15 textbooks at home. He has notebooks full of his own handwriting, learning how to conjugate Russian verbs. At the time, he felt like it was something that would help prolong his career in Russia.

“If I can do an interview in Russian and another team can see this on TV, then maybe that team will sign me because they think, ‘Hey, this guy is showing us respect,'” he said. he declared. “It was because of the paycheck. It was because of opportunity. It was because of the desire to be there. I loved it there.

He was living in Chelyabinsk when, in 2013, a meteor streaked across the sky, smashing panes across the city as it shattered through the atmosphere and created a series of sonic booms. (He was in bed when it happened, about to hit the snooze button: “I was the most scared of my life.”)

Garnett also spent time with Balashikha MVD HC, which was part of the Russian Interior Ministry. (He had a police card that allowed him to pass checkpoints easily.)

Right now, he thinks he can grasp about nine out of ten words a Russian speaker might say in conversation. It’s not bad, he says, but not good enough to be translated in an official capacity. As a border driver, however, he is invaluable, especially for refugees from the eastern regions of Ukraine.

“They would compliment his accent,” Rider said with a smile.

Garnett and Rider, who is a pilot for WestJet, flew back to Poland on Thursday. They must stay abroad until June 10. As they prepared to leave, they didn’t know where they could spend their time. Transportation may not be so critical anymore, Garnett said, so their energy could be directed toward helping those seeking to enter Canada.

They pay their own way. The couple has started a GoFundMeclaiming that every penny collected will be used to offer direct assistance to refugees fleeing war.

“Having someone there, who’s going to get them somewhere safe, that’s all,” Steed said. “Because they don’t really have a plan, do they?” Everything they have has been destroyed. They have made it to the border and they just want to know that they will be safe.

Steed, who is pursuing his commercial pilot license, also plans to return. WestJet colleagues have collected toiletries from hotel stays and will leave them in Toronto for her to take overseas. (Small items like those in hotels are easier for refugees to carry, she said.)

Steed is also Fund raising. On her last trip, she resupplied across the border to Lviv. She didn’t tell her mother until she got back.

“Maybe it’s crazy,” Steed said. “But also: what’s crazier, going to help or doing nothing?”

(Photo courtesy of Michael Garnett)

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