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Israeli-Canadian hockey player Eliezer Sherbatov plays left wing for HC Mariupol of the Ukrainian Hockey League. He was awakened by artillery fire early in the morning on Feb. 24.WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Eliezer Sherbatov was awakened by artillery fire at about 5 a.m. Thursday.

“It was close,” Sherbatov says over the telephone. He is an Israeli-Canadian and plays left wing for HC Mariupol of the Ukrainian Hockey League.

“We were supposed to have a game tonight,” he says ruefully.

The game at the Mariupol Ice Centre was postponed after Russia invaded Ukraine in the cold of pre-dawn. Missiles struck targets across the country of 44 million people.

“Everything was fine until this morning,” says Sherbatov, 30. “Then, boom!”

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He was born in Israel to Russian parents who emigrated to Canada when he was a toddler. He grew up in Montreal, played three seasons in the QMJHL and has played in Europe for the past nine years.

In 2020-21, Sherbatov suited up for a club called Unia in the city of Oswiecim in southern Poland. For him, it was as much a pilgrimage as it was a means to prolong his career.

He is Jewish and desired to play in Oswiecim because it was the site of the Auschwitz death camps during the Second World War.

“I’m very proud of my heritage,” Sherbatov said at the time. “I came here to play for the dead, and for their remembrance. I want Jews to see that a Jewish kid came back to a city 80 years after so many died.

“That’s why I am here.”

Last season, he had 10 goals and 14 assists in 34 games for Oswiecim. As of Thursday, he was fifth in the Ukrainian League in scoring with 22 points in 19 games. HC Mariupol was fourth in the league standings.

What will happen to the league now is anybody’s guess.

On Thursday night, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said 137 civilians and military members had been killed. Millions of terrified citizens were seeking shelter in subways and crowded in shelters beneath the ground. Russian troops were encroaching on Kyiv, the country’s capital.

Tens of thousands of people are trying to flee.

Teammates have encouraged Sherbatov to stay put. They are mostly Russian. Instead, he has decided to try to make his way to the border with Poland.

“I am absolutely afraid for my life,” Sherbatov says. “This is no joke.”

Even though security officials in Canada and the United States predicted an invasion was imminent, Sherbatov says it still took everyone by surprise.

“Everyone was laughing about it,” he says. “They said nothing would happen.”

In the morning, he saw people queued in long lines waiting to withdraw cash from bank machines. Panic began to set in as the day wore on.

“I have had mixed emotions,” he says. “I have been crying. I have been angry. I have been disappointed. Just about everything.”

He enjoyed playing in Ukraine and is heartbroken by what is transpiring. Tanks are rolling through the streets. Sirens are filling the air. It is a nightmare.

“I have thought about the choice I made to come here,” Sherbatov says. “I am having the ‘should have, could haves.’

“I just wanted to play hockey.”

Now he wants to come home.

“I have been writing the Canadian government but I have gotten no answers,” Sherbatov says. “I have asked what I should do. ‘Is the embassy open?’ ‘Can someone please help me?’

“I get no help.”

In Montreal, his family is worried for him. He spoke with them on Thursday.

“I am trying not to talk to them too much,” Sherbatov says. “It just causes more stress. All I want now is to get out of here.”