Toronto Maple Leafs left winger Alexei Ponikarovsky was among 53 immigrants who were sworn-in as proud Canadians at a service in Etobicoke yesterday.
"It feels great," Ponikarovsky, 27, said after pledging an oath of allegiance. "It has been a long journey for me to finally become a Canadian citizen."
Ponikarovsky's wife Inna, and their daughters Jessica, 41/2, and Alex, 21/2, are both Canadians.
"It feels great to be part of this country," he said. "This is a great country and the people are fantastic."
Ponikarovsky signed autographs after the service for students of Sir Adam Beck junior school who sang the national anthem.
The NHLer said he always wanted to live in Canada after visiting the country twice as a young hockey player. He moved here from the Ukraine after being drafted by the Leafs seven years ago.
"Playing in the NHL has always been a goal for me," he said. "I am glad to finally be a full citizen of this beautiful country."
He said he can now try out for the Canadian Olympic hockey team now that he's a citizen.
Citizenship court judge Ann Northcote said the new Canadians arrived here from 28 countries.
"Canadian citizenship means being treated as an equal," Northcote told the new citizens at the immigration office on Dundas St. W. "For many of you it is the end of a long voyage but the start of a new life."
Matthias Esabu, 33, said yesterday was the happiest day of his life.
"Today my dream has come true," Esabu said. "Today is one of the greatest days of my life."
Esabu said he fled his native Nigeria for being a political activist in 2001. He arrived in Canada and filed a successful refugee claim.
Immigration spokesman Rejean Cantlon said 259,000 new Canadians were sworn in last year. He said about 710 immigrants daily take the oath to become Canadians.