Action between Ice Lions and Team World at the 2nd edition of the Jamhuri Cup at Panari Sky Centre

By Omondi OnyattaCapital Sports

For many, the mention of ice hockey brings to mind the likes of United States, Canada, Nordic countries as well as Russia where the sport is as popular as football and athletics are in Kenya.

However, the sport is increasingly taking root in the country with stakeholders determined to tap in as many talents as possible and transform the country into a powerhouse in Africa and beyond.

Tim Colby is the coach of the national team, Ice Lions, and has been working closely with other stakeholders to grow the sport within the country and achieve the ultimate dream of Kenya one day gracing the Olympic Games.

The Canadian describes it as an exciting task that has sometimes encountered headwinds but is nonetheless soldiering on relentlessly.

“We’ve been on ice for five or six years except for the Covid period in the last couple of years. We started out slow…we had like new players who joined and then Covid hit. That really set us back a little bit,” Colby says.

He adds: “So, we picked up again recently. We were off the ice for quite some time for financial reasons. We couldn’t afford it…ice hockey is very expensive. We are back now, we have some funding to keep us going for a few months. I think we are going to see a lot of progress with the team.”

Part of the master plan to take Kenyan ice hockey to the next level is to compete in international matches in addition to training camps outside the country.

“Over the next year or two, it looks like we are going to have international trips. We have been invited to various places, including South Africa, who have a national team who will be competing in the Olympics qualifiers. That is our aim as Ice Lions…to qualify for the Olympics eventually,” the coach explains.

Dwelling on these international trips, Colby is optimistic they will introduce the players on what is required to compete at the highest level of the sport.

“We have some teams in North Africa…Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia…they are made up of players who play in North Africa. Then we have South Africa…so if we get down to South Africa next year for training, they have a full Olympic sized ice rink. We have a smaller ice here so we play three against three plus goalies…there they play five against five, which is the international standard,” Colby explains.

He adds: “We are hoping to get down there and do some training, which will be a great experience for the team. They have a strong program in South Africa and it’s a good model for us to learn how to organize and better play.”

Equally important for the growth of ice hockey in Kenya is training programs’ for local coaches to impart them with up-to-date knowledge of the game in line with world class standards.

“We can learn a lot from the South Africans and also from the North Americans who have offered to host us. If we can get over there, we can have some of the Kenyans trained as certified coaches. There are programs’ you can train in Canada and the US in particular and become a certified coach,” Colby explains.

He adds: “I was a certified coach in Canada but now we need the Kenyan coaches to step up…and they are doing it. They are training our players in the youth development programs’ but it’s a complex game so it is important for our coaches to be trained in certified international.”

Collaboration with NHL

Key to the success of this multi-pronged strategy is partnerships with public and private entities to enable the team acquire the necessary resources.

Much has been witnessed of the impact of the National Basketball Association (NBA) activities on the continent in the past decade and Colby is optimistic that the same could amount out of a collaboration with the National Hockey League (NHL).

“We have started some discussions with them…the professional league in North America. They are very interested…they didn’t know about ice hockey in Kenya or anywhere in Africa. They were very surprised and very happy when we sent them some videos and pictures. One team has reached out and they may come here when the NHL season is over to meet us and talk about a partnership,” the coach reveals.

The potential collaboration with NHL would resolve one of the challenges impeding the growth of ice hockey in the country, which is lack of regular matches in the national team.

Colby attributes that to the lack of facilities to play on, with Panari Sky Centre the only one available in the East and Central Africa region.

“Here in Kenya, there is only one ice rink. In Canada, where I grew up, there are thousands of ice rinks and every city has several so you can always find ice time to practice. This is a big challenge over here in Kenya,” he says.

His sentiments are echoed by national team player Arnold Mburu who adds that there are not much opponents they can test themselves against regularly.

“The matches are not as often as other sports mainly because of the unavailability of other teams to play with because as of right now we are the only team in East and Central Africa. The foreigners who come to play against us are expats, diplomats who come from all over the world to give us a challenge,” Mburu says.

He adds: “It is also difficult for most of us to find opportunities to train and play because ice time is pretty expensive. You can’t just have a game every month because it requires funds so it is challenging.”

Mburu is crossing his fingers that the government will come on board and support the growth of the sport, including construction of more facilities.

“Many people aren’t aware that ice hockey exists in Kenya. I’d love for the government to dip its hand in ice hockey. I’d love for fans to come out in their numbers and watch our matches. Hopefully, in the future, we might go to the Olympics,” he says.

His coach reveals they have made overtures to the government via the Sports Cabinet Secretary, Ababu Namwamba, to aid them in their plan to grow the sport.

“We are looking for a longer term partnership, including with the government of Kenya. We have approached the CS and his team about getting some sponsorship and support from the ministry,” Colby says.

Plenty of potential

The Ice Lion’s latest match was last Saturday against Team World to who they lost 12-2 in Pre-Jamhuri Day tie at the Panari Centre.

Commenting on the result, Colby believes the odds were always against his side considering the caliber of their opponents, most of who have played their sport since their childhood.

“I warned Team Kenya that they had to be sharp today because these guys want to win badly. They played really well but Team Kenya we were a bit flat today and you can’t afford to do that against an experienced team some of who are former ice hockey professional players. Today was not a good day for Team Kenya but it is a good lesson…you learn more from losing,” the coach observes.

Jukka Korhonen, who was part of the victorious team, feels their opponents showed them a lot of respect on the day but is nonetheless positive about the trajectory of the sport in the country.

“In today’s game, they had too much respect for us. Normally on Wednesdays, they usually compete well against us. However, ice hockey in Kenya has grown over time…the boys are really interested in the sport. It’s always fun to play over here, I really enjoy it,” Korhonen says.

He admits he is in awe of Kenyans’ physicality and believes the team can go places if they work on their technical aspects of the game.

“Many players are spending hours in ice skating, which tells me they are very interested in the sport. What they have is enormous speed on ice…now what they need is more technical aspects and more ice time and we will see them in a few years competing all over Africa and whatever competitions,” he says.

Looking onward

Reflecting on his journey on the ice rink, Mburu says he has enjoyed playing ice hockey and does not regret exchanging basketball shoes in favour of skates.

“Ice hockey is fun and exciting. I find it way more intense and more of a team sport. I played basketball in high school and at the University of Eldoret but I find ice hockey to be more fun,” he says.

Colby is hopeful more will follow Mburu’s cue and join the sport in droves – a process that is not rocket science to anyone interested.

“We have a youth program for training so once they can skate fairly well they can come out on our Sunday youth training program. We have two age divisions…we even have 7-8 year old’s that come out to play. You first need to learn how to skate. You can come out to Panari, the ice rink is really good. Come out and start training and then graduate to ice hockey with the Ice Lions training program ” he explains.

In a football-mad country that has enjoyed unparalleled success in athletics, ice hockey may seem like a fish among sharks in an ocean.

However, stakeholders are not about to develop cold feet in their quest to grow it into a major sport in Kenya and beyond.