“It’s an awful situation in Ukraine so we are trying our best to help” – Former KHL goalie Michael Garnett is raising money and acquiring supplies for war refugees

NHL, KHL / Haastattelu
Garnett and his wife Rebecca Rider have spent time in Poland and in Ukraine to help Ukrainian war refugees.
Kuva © Haastateltavan kotialbumi
Michael Garnett, whose family has Ukrainian roots, played in the KHL for several years, so when Russia started a war in Ukraine he felt guilty and awful and wanted to do something to help the Ukrainians.

– You can do so much good even if you’re just a little bit famous.

Michael Garnett may not be the most famous hockey player, but he was a third-round draft pick by the now-defunct NHL team, Atlanta Thrashers, and he also had an established career in the KHL. This spring, Garnett has been using his fame and time by helping the Ukrainian people in need.

– I was in Poland with my wife in April. We rented a big van and drove refugees to humanitarian aid centers and train stations when they crossed the border. We did that with our own money.

− It's an awful situation in Ukraine so we are trying our best to help

Garnett’s friends in Canada saw what he, and his wife Rebecca Rider, were doing in Ukraine, and asked how they could help the Ukrainians.

– I said we were paying everything ourselves so they said they could give us money and we could use it where it’s needed. That’s how the fundraiser got started and now we have raised approximately 10 000 euros.

After the fundraiser had gathered enough money Garnett and Rider returned to Europe to continue to help the Ukrainians.

– We were in Poland in April and when we got back in May we noticed that there weren’t a lot of people leaving Ukraine anymore but actually going back in. So, we had to find another way to help.

– We were in Lviv, Ukraine for a week and we spent all the money. We went to the refugee shelter and picked up an employee, then we went together to Metro, a large department store, and bought the supplies the refugees needed the most: food, diapers, and medicines. We drove from one shelter to the next for a week.

Garnett played 24 NHL games.
Kuva © Getty Images

“It’s always the Finns!”

After two seasons in WHL’s Red Deer Rebels Garnett moved for season 2002–03 to the Thrashers’ organization, which had drafted him in 2001. First three seasons Garnett played in the AHL and ECHL until playing in 24 NHL games in 2005.

– I would say that the finest memories of my hockey career would be the last ten games I played in the NHL. I had a 7–0–3 record and two shutouts. I was on fire and that’s what I like to look back.

The reason why Garnett got his chance to play in the NHL was that the Thrashers’ number one goalie Kari Lehtonen was injured.

– I knew he would be the Atlanta Thrashers’ number one goalie once he recovered from his injury. So, when I saw him practicing again, I knew I had to give my best performance to keep my spot in the NHL. I had an amazing ten-game period which I’ll always remember as the best time of my career.

Garnett has fond memories of Lehtonen even though he was the blockage of the Garnett’s NHL career.

– Kari was a great teammate and I learned so much from him. I didn’t really have a goaltending coach when I was playing in juniors or ECHL. When I came to Chicago Wolves, Kari was there, and I watched how he played very low to the ice and he was trying to catch everything. I remember watching him and thinking that I want to play like him.

– It was a great opportunity for me to learn from one of the best goalies in the world. Kari wasn’t always in the best shape, especially when he was younger, and coaches and GMs were really hard on him. But when he got to the ice, his eyes lit, and he was like a predator hunting the puck. I really loved playing with him.

For most of his professional career, Garnett played in the KHL: eight seasons in Russia and one season in both Bratislava and Zagreb.

– Years in the KHL were also an amazing time. I was twice in the Gagarin Cup finals, and we lost both times. The first time was in Game 7 at home, and I think it was Niko Kapanen who scored the clinching goal when there was one minute left in the regulation time. It’s always the Finns!

The first time Garnett made it to the Gagarin Cup finals 2009–10 he was playing in HK MVD.

– I think we had the second-lowest payroll in the whole league, and we scored the fourth-most points in the regular season. It was an absolutely incredible team. We were the underdogs and I faced lots of shots every night. It was a very special team and season.

Three years later, Garnett experienced the finals again, this time with Traktor Chelyabinsk.

– There we had a better team: great players like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Valeri Nichushkin and Petri Kontiola. I have very fond memories of playing in Russia, I loved it.

In KHL Garnett played for eight seasons.
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“They couldn’t believe that someone would come from Canada to volunteer”

Garnett's family has roots in Ukraine, so the Russian invasion had a special impact on him.

– My Ukrainian roots are a big part of why I want to help but I also feel kind of guilty because I was in Russia. I know it’s not my fault that Russia is invading Ukraine, but I just feel awful. I saw on the news what was happening, and it made me sick so I had to do something.

Spending nine seasons in Russia also helped Garnett pick up the language.

– I speak Russian pretty well and most of the people escaping the war are from Eastern Ukraine, so they are Russian-speaking Ukrainians. I’ve listened to their stories, and it’s been really heartbreaking. It has taken a pretty big emotional toll on me, and I was feeling stressed, anxious, and like my chest was tensing up.

Garnett was especially stressed when his wife, a commercial pilot, was working and he was in Poland on his own for two weeks.

– I had to go back home and regroup myself, basically just calm down.

Garnett lives in Calgary, and he calls it a “very Ukrainian area in Canada”.

– There are over one million people of Ukrainian descent in Canada and in the area where I live there are lots of Ukrainian festivals and stores.

Being close to the war zone was a unique experience for Garnett.

– On our first trip we saw the refugees right after they came across the border. We were watching on the news how missiles hit the rail station, I think it was in Kramatorsk. And 24 hours later we picked up people who had been there. That was emotionally really heavy and hard to see.

On the latter trip, however, the situation in Lviv was different.

– The city is functioning quite normally; restaurants are open and stuff like that but you also know there’s a war going on and you see soldiers and barricades. Also, air raid sirens were going off because Russia is firing missiles and that’s been scary every time we’ve heard that.

The refugees in Lviv are desperately in need of help.

– The problem especially in Western Ukraine is that the war’s been going on for so long that the aid is slowing down. Shelters are running low on supplies and when we showed up and said that we have money they couldn’t believe that someone would come from Canada to volunteer and have a van and money.

– The people we are seeing in Lviv are experiencing very different pain and suffering than the people we saw at the border. They have been living in Lviv for maybe a month or six weeks and they’re staying in shelters or local houses. And they’re lacking food or soap or other basic supplies and that’s what we’re giving them.

Garnett has travelled twice to Europe with his wife.
Kuva © Haastateltavan kotialbumi

“The Ukrainians need all the help they can get”

At the time of the interview, at the end of May, Garnett and Rider were on vacation but they already have plans on how to continue helping the Ukrainians.

– We are in Romania dirt biking. We do that for a while and then we go back to Canada. Our next step is to make a partnership with a charity organization in Canada, and we have already scheduled a meeting with them when we get back to Canada. Then we could receive donations from people, give tax receipts to the donors and use the money for official charity purposes in Ukraine.

Having been on-site and seeing things up close, Garnett encourages every one of us to help.

– The Ukrainians really need all the help they can get. They are honest and hard-working people who are now homeless, and their cities have been destroyed. This could happen to anyone, and we need to help each other.

– People can put money in our fund and we write down every dollar we spend. The charity organization we found, World Central Kitchen, is feeding people in need. That’s the charity I recommend.

On the other hand, Garnett is aware that his actions have no effect on the war itself.

– Honestly, if you want to stop the war you have to support the Ukrainian military and I don’t know how to do that. It’s up to the governments. There are some brave individuals who drive to the front lines and take supplies, but you don’t win the war with food, you don’t win the war with soap.

Helping others has been a very satisfying experience for Garnett.

– I have learned so much about myself. I feel I haven’t done enough in the past. My life was very long focused on two things: playing hockey and making money. Now I see how fulfilling it can be to do good and make a positive impact. It feels really good to help other people!

The response from the Ukrainians has also felt good.

– The people are so happy and grateful for the help, it’s phenomenal. There are lots of people wanting to help but they are mostly getting in the way. There’s a limit on how many bathrooms you can clean as a volunteer and at some point, you have to contribute.

– It’s made such a big difference that we’ve been able to collect money and buy supplies these people need.

Garnett also has a message for the Finnish hockey players.

– If any other hockey player is reading this, I encourage them to give back: you can help your local kids with their hockey and buy what they need. If some Finnish hockey player thinks they can’t raise money for a cause because they’re not Teemu Selänne, I just want to say that you can still do good: you can give an interview to a newspaper for example.

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