On the same weekend the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs was being played in North America, a different hockey game featuring NHL talent was taking place in a large parking lot on the streets of Nairobi, Kenya.
Twenty-four-year-old Calgary Flames defenceman Oliver Kylington and 39-year-old Johnny Oduya, who played 850 games in the NHL from 2006-18, were in the East African country playing roller hockey with locals and the Kenya Ice Lions, the nation’s only team playing organized hockey.
The pair of defencemen also donated equipment through sponsors, visited neighbourhoods and met with locals.
To plan the weekend, Kylington and Oduya collaborated with the Ice Lions, who play in a country that has just one ice hockey rink. It’s located in a hotel but has been shut down for more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Comprised of mainly adult males, the Ice Lions compete in intrasquad games and bring in guest players to participate as well.
“We brought these plastic pucks and they were shooting and guys were going down, blocking shots with no equipment,” Kylington said from Nairobi. “I would never see a Swedish kid do that. We’re like, ‘What is going on here?’”
“It’s almost like watching a Stanley Cup Final,” said Oduya, who was born in Stockholm and won Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013 and 2015.
“They’re playing on the street on a Sunday for three hours. It’s fascinating.’”
Oliver Kylington in Kenya
Kylington and Oduya have known each other since Kylington’s father introduced them when he was around eight years old. Oduya became a big brother to Kylington, someone with many shared experiences as a fellow hockey-playing Swede with African heritage. Kylington’s mother is from the Eastern African country of Eritrea, while Oduya’s father is from the Luo tribe of Kenya.
After meeting, they’ve gone on to train and vacation together over the years. Now, they are trying to grow the sport together on the continent of their ancestors.
“It’s been mind-blowing meeting people and seeing that passion for hockey in their eyes,” Kylington said.
This was the first time he’d been to Africa since he was 10.
“It’s been really humbling to see where the kids playing here have grown up,” he said. “You get a lot of perspective. You realize quickly not to take things for granted.”
Recently, Oduya created a sports performance brand called Atunya, a word from the Luo tribe which means relentless.
“So, like the action of the lion,” Oduya said, “I wanted to tie it in and try to open up quite a segregated game, which hockey is.”
Three years ago, the Ice Lions were flown to Toronto to play their first organized games and met Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and Colorado Avalanche star centre Nathan MacKinnon. A video documenting that trip went viral.
Now, the NHLers are coming to them.
“They put on a huge show,” Ice Lions coach Tim Colby, a Canadian diplomat, said. “They brought tons of gear and jerseys. Things like that are really inspiring for the team.”
He was also impressed with how Oduya and Kylington genuinely wanted to learn about the country’s life and culture. Kylington did much of the legwork in terms of arranging donations and organizing logistics.
“Oliver asked tons of questions about life here,” Colby said. “Neither of them wanted to leave.”
Colby has witnessed firsthand the power of hockey in shaping lives and the influence of having the likes of Kylington and Oduya involved in developing the sport in Kenya. It allows participants to dream big, not just in sports but also in other areas of their lives.
“The players just see the world differently when they start playing,” he said. “The world now is no longer just Nairobi. It’s not where they live. All of a sudden, they have a chance to go somewhere internationally…at least you have the opportunity to think that way now.”
Chances are Kylington, Oduya and Colby will find themselves together on that same parking lot in Nairobi for puck drop again in the near future.
While their first voyage to Kenya was short, Oduya and Kylington plan to return in a year to bring even more gear, play more games, and further integrate into the culture.
Their ultimate goal is to introduce Africans to hockey, both for exercise and as a tool for social mobility.
“It’s a way for them to come to the rink, stay out of trouble, and do positive things,” Oduya said.
For both of them, it has meant even more than that.
“I would say it’s been the best trip of my life so far,” Kylington said.
“I’m taking a lot with me. It’s been amazing. It’s so hard to put into words. For me as a grown-up now, coming back to Africa, you understand more about stuff in life. You’re seeing what people really fight for and how hockey can bring joy to them. It’s amazing and unbelievable to see that passion…just them loving the game.”
“You get touched emotionally in a different way when you’re there,” Oduya said. “In some ways it’s challenging to visit, but there’s so much enthusiasm from them. The kids we met have the mindset of possibility.”
Tunisia, to put it mildly, does not often give birth to hockey players, but now the North African country can be proud of a historic event – the first women hockey player with Tunisian roots playing in Canada.
Her name is Sirin Kasem and her parents are from Tunisia. She has been playing hockey since she was 7 years old, and since season 18/19 Sirin has been playing for the Quebec A’s from the Quebec Triple-A League. At the end of the 19/20 season, Sirin scored 13 goals in 22 games and took 12th place in the league’s top scorers list, and the team won the main trophy – The Cup of Canada.
Everything is just beginning for me. The Cup of Canada is not the limit. I am grateful to my parents for everything they have done. They were always present at my games, they cheer me up after a bad games and taught me a lot, for example, to be persistent and strong. They have always supported me, and in the end it helped a lot, ”said Kassem.
Immediately after the end of the season, Sirin was invited to the QCHL (Quebec College Hockey League) team “Les Titans du Cégep Limoilou”. The head coach of the Titans, Pascal Dufresne, said that the attacking qualities of there new hockey player are excellent.
But Sirin’s dream has nothing to do with hockey. She wants to become a surgeon and is making every effort to make her dream come true.
Sameh Ramadan is a busy man. By day he lives in New Jersey, where he works in sales and marketing. By night the American-born Egyptian dual citizen is a senior advisor for Egypt’s club team and the point person in the country’s quest to join the International Ice Hockey Federation.
Ramadan, who joined Egypt Ice Hockey in 2016, is working tirelessly to establish a winter sports federation in Egypt in hopes of one day having the nation participate in international competitions. Ever the salesman, Ramadan has put his marketing chops to good use, rebranding Egypt Ice Hockey by revamping the team logo with a previously designed pharaoh wearing a goalie mask in the style of Jason Voorhees from Friday The 13th.
Ramadan – along with fellow committee members Yasser Ahmed, Ayman Abdallah, Ahmed Ramadan and Mahmoud Ghonaim – is also working to stage a game in front of the Pyramids of Giza to raise awareness about hockey in Egypt.
“Just imagine that vision in front of the pyramids, how crazy would that be?” he said. “If we are able to pull off a game at the pyramids, it would be an iconic scene – ice hockey in the desert in front of one of the ancient wonders of the world.”
The idea isn’t as pie in the sky as you might think. The plateau in front of the pyramids, which is used for concerts, graduations and other affairs, has hosted sporting events in the past, including the annual Egyptian Squash Open. Ramadan is working with charitable organizations Hockey4All and The Hockey Foundation on the logistics of staging the event. The hope is to build a real ice rink (rather than a synthetic one) in front of the pyramids and host a sports festival.
Egyptian Squash Open
As head of Egypt Ice Hockey, as well as a left winger for the country’s team, Ramadan is always on the lookout for new talent across the globe. Whenever he crosses paths with anyone in the hockey community, he always makes a point of asking, “Do you know any good hockey players with Egyptian citizenship?”
And he’s not just looking for men. As a father of three young girls, all of whom play hockey in New Jersey, he’s hoping to establish a women’s team in Egypt as well. To that end, he’s identified eight to 10 dual-citizen girls under the age of 12 who are playing at the highest level of hockey in their respective countries.
In February, Egypt competed at the six-team Arab Professional Club Championship, with Lebanon, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and host Kuwait. (Tunisia and Algeria were also invited, but neither could make it.) The tournament, which was the second edition, marked the opening of a new ice rink in Kuwait.
The club has come a long way since Ramadan’s first competition, the 2016 Africa Ice Hockey Clubs Cup in Morocco. Egypt showed up with nine players, two of whom were under 14, and only one goalie. The outcome was as expected, as the club team finished plum last.
“We now have a list of players,” Ramadan said. “We are rejecting a ton of people and asking for videos.”
The players come primarily from New Jersey, Montreal and Cairo, and all of them pay their own way. To recruit new players, Egypt Ice Hockey relies heavily on word of mouth and social media. Members of the team play a pivotal role in the recruiting process by reaching out to clubs and coaches and asking whether any of their players are dual citizens. According to Ramadan, since the team began participating in tournaments, and especially after their overhauled logo went viral on Reddit, they’ve been getting more emails from players and coaches who are interested in joining the club.
At the Arab Clubs Tournament in 2018 in the UAE, Egypt managed to come away with its first competition win, beating Algeria’s club team 8-7 to finish fourth out of five teams. This February in Kuwait, Egypt will again participate as a club team, not a national team. Since the IIHF doesn’t sanction club competitions, the teams are allowed to bring non-nationals. Yet Egypt Ice Hockey has decided to limit the number of foreign players regardless, in order to give more chances to players with Egyptian nationalities. “We’re not so much bothered about our record as much as the year-to-year improvement and our growth,” Ramadan said.
Egyptian team at the 2018 Arab Clubs Tournament
If Egypt’s program continues to grow, the hope is the country will eventually join the ranks of the IIHF. If so, Egypt would become only the fourth African nation to do so, joining Algeria, Morocco and South Africa. Last year, the IIHF welcomed Algeria, Colombia, Iran, Lebanon and Uzbekistan. For most upstart non-hockey nations, the biggest hurdle is a lack of equipment. But thanks to donations from The Hockey Foundation and Hockey4All, Ramadan has all the equipment he needs.
To move forward, Egypt Ice Hockey is simply seeking a piece of paper from either the Egyptian Sports Minister or the Egyptian Olympic Committee.
“All I need is a letter, which is free,” Ramadan said. “The letter would say that Egypt Ice Hockey can continue to get an ice hockey education and bring that knowledge to Egypt – basically that the club can develop the hockey interest in Egypt. And with that we can apply to be an affiliate member to the IIHF.”
If Ramadan gets his wish, a new hockey nation will officially be born.
Program working toward IIHF membership, chance to play in Olympics.
The Kenya Ice Lions are ready to roar.
Almost two years after becoming social media sensations when the video of their game in Canada with Pittsburgh Penguins centerSidney Crosbyand Colorado Avalanche centerNathan MacKinnonwent viral, the Ice Lions feel they are ready to conquer the hockey world.
The next step for the Nairobi-based team with Olympic dreams is seeking membership in the International Ice Hockey Federation.
Ice Lions officials are in the process of forming the Kenya Federation of Ice Sports, a body that would be recognized by the Kenyan government to develop hockey, speedskating and figure skating. The federation would have the authority to apply for IIHF affiliate status for Kenya.
“We are very, very close to becoming a federation now,” said Tim Colby, a Canadian expat who is the Ice Lions’ general manager and coach. “We’re almost there. It’s a lot of bureaucratic hurdles. I’d say in a couple of months we’ll put in the application. We’ve already been in touch with the IIHF and they’re very eager to have us join as affiliates.”
If approved, Kenya would join Algeria, Morocco and South Africa as the only IIHF members on the continent. Egypt and Tunisia are also trying to join the 81-nation federation.
Kenya’s effort has been buoyed by the media attention from the Crosby-MacKinnon event, which was arranged by Tim Hortons, and by an ad from the China-based Alibaba Group that ran during the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics and featured the Ice Lions.
“I think the turning point is the Tim Hortons thing about two years ago, when they came back with full sets of gear,” said Jon Saunders, a former Miami University defenseman who shuttles between London and Nairobi and helps coach the Ice Lions. “With the coaching that had been done and some of the notoriety, things just picked up from there. The skill level, on a scale of one to 10, went from a two to about six or seven. Now it’s quite competitive; they’ve gotten really good.”
The spotlight bought the team fame — some Ice Lions traveled to PyeongChang for the 2018 Olympics — and some good fortune. Tim Hortons donated some much-needed new equipment to the Ice Lions along with about $22,500 that Colby said recently arrived in Nairobi.
North Park Hockey, a nonprofit youth team in New York, was so fascinated by the Ice Lions’ story after watching the Crosby-MacKinnon video that they adopted the team and donated about $10,000. The team is using the funds to renovate its locker room and pay for ice time at their small rink inside Nairobi’s Panari Hotel. The rink is the only indoor ice surface in Central and East Africa. Colby admits it’s not perfect — but it’s home.
“There’s an ice resurfacing machine, about half the size of a Volkswagen, and you can’t flood and scrape at the same time,” he said. “But the ice quality is good. We’re stuck with square corners, though.”
The rink and the hotel are near a national park where tourists can catch glimpses of leopards, cheetahs, and rhinos. But a growing number of hockey aficionados are coming to the region to see the Ice Lions. Hockey Hall of FamerViacheslav Fetisovmade the journey to play with the Kenyans in March 2019 as part of his project in partnership with the United Nations to highlight climate change.
Fetisov visit to Kenya
The contest, with Fetisov’s Last Game team, was the first international hockey game played in Kenya.
Bernie Saunders, who became the NHL’s fifth black player when he played 10 games for the Quebec Nordiques in 1979-80 and 1980-81, skated with the Ice Lions last year and watched his son coach.
“I think it was pretty cool for him,” said Jon Saunders, whose late uncle, John Saunders, was a hockey analyst and sportscaster for ABC and ESPN. “I don’t know what he was expecting to see going into it, but I think it meant a lot to him.”
Rick Lipsey, a North Park Hockey team manager and parent-coach, made the trek to Nairobi with his two sons to skate with the Kenyans and present them with an oversized check and bags full of hockey items donated by Pure Hockey, Howies Hockey Tape and Renfrew Pro, a maker of hockey tape.
“It was a great time and life-changing,” Lipsey, a former Sports Illustrated writer, said of the 4 1/2 days in Nairobi. “They actually are pretty good. They are not NHL or junior hockey level, but the kids can wheel and deal over there. Some of them could be really good hockey players given the opportunity.”
When Kirika Mugo, a resident of Washington, D.C., learned that his homeland had a hockey team, he couldn’t wait to take his son Austin to Nairobi in February 2019 to play with a team comprised of black players. The two enjoyed it so much that they made a return trip this February; Austin practiced with the team in one session that ran from 8 p.m. until nearly midnight.
“I felt proud because I don’t get to see that in the States,” said Austin, who played for Washington’s Alice Deal Middle School last season. “The majority of my teammates are white, so this was an experience.”
So how did hockey come to Kenya? Colby said some University of Manitoba students were in Nairobi on a research project in 2006 when they discovered that the city had an ice rink.
“They saw the ice and, being Canadian, they said, ‘Whoa!'” Colby said. “The next time they came back, they bought their equipment and started playing. And some guys, including one who is our team captain now, saw it and said, ‘Wow, this is crazy, I’ve got to try it. And it snowballed from there.”
The captain, Bernard Azegere, approached Colby and asked him if he’d like to coach the novice players. Colby was reluctant but eventually agreed.
“I said, ‘Guys, let’s play shinny and have fun — it’s one (heck) of a difficult sport to take to the next level,'” he said. “They’re, like, ‘Aw, come on!’ They’re watching the NHL, they’re watching the Olympics. They’re, like, ‘We want a national team to compete in the Olympics.’ They were so into it, I finally gave in and started helping out.”
Colby said the Kenyan hockey program has about 24 adults — including one woman — and 25 youth players. Lipsey said those numbers could grow if players from a vibrant roller hockey community in Nairobi make the transition to ice.
“There’s this big parking lot in downtown Nairobi where every Saturday and Sunday they skate for 4-8 hours and they get a few hundred people,” he said. “They just play roller hockey, rollerblading, they have races. That’s where their farm system is for the ice hockey. They take the kids who are able to get to the rink.”
Colby’s players pride themselves for their growth on the ice. Their coach takes satisfaction in what hockey has done for their growth as individuals.
“I’m watching kids who were so shy before, didn’t speak, do television interviews, international media,” Colby said. “Our one female player, Faith, she’s gone from nothing to everything as far as confidence goes. Sports is a great tool for that.”
Organizers aiming to join IIHF, build program that can compete in Winter Olympics
The NHL brought hockey to the desert by putting teams in Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Sameh Ramadan is on a crusade to bring the game to the sands of Egypt.
Ramadan is general manager and co-captain of Egypt Ice Hockey, a national club team appropriately named the Pharaohs. With the same kind of patience that it took to erect the pyramids stone by stone, he and the Pharaohs are building an Egyptian hockey program in hopes of joining the International Ice Hockey Federation and, some day, competing in the Winter Olympics.
“I believe you never know where your next all-star is going to come from,” said Ramadan, an Egyptian who grew up and lives in New Jersey. “[Toronto Maple Leafs center] Auston Matthews is from the desert in Arizona, right? It’s not necessarily a hockey powerhouse.”
Hockey is growing gradually in the Middle East and Africa. South Africa has been an IIHF member since 1937, Israel joined the federation in 1991, the United Arab Emirates in 2001, Kuwait in 2009 and Morocco in 2010 as an associate member. Iran and Lebanon became associate IIHF members in September 2019.
Egypt, Kenya, and Tunisia are now knocking on the IIHF’s door.
“We don’t want to be left behind because we’ve been doing this for longer, but we’ve never organized it to the standpoint that we can move it to the next level,” Ramadan said. “That’s why we now have a good team in place, based in the U.S. and based in Cairo.”
For Egypt Ice Hockey’s IIHF dream to become reality, it must first gain the endorsement of the country’s athletic governing bodies.
“Ultimately to become an affiliate member of the IIHF all we need is a letter from either the Olympic committee or youth sport ministry basically saying that we’re the only group developing ice hockey in Egypt and we’re supported,” Ramadan said. “Can we be an aggressive Division III World Championship team? Absolutely, and that’s what our realistic goal is in the next 10 years.”
The Pharaohs have competed in tournaments in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years to help them gain exposure. In February, they played in the Arab Clubs Championship in Kuwait against teams from the host country, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.
“It’s just to show that we can play the game,” said Mohamed Aref, a tournament organizer who represents the UAE in the IIHF and is a member of the federation’s Asian Strategic Planning Group. “It doesn’t matter what’s the climate outside. I know people who say, ‘You are in the desert’ and ‘How can you play the game?’ It’s a different sport, it’s different from your culture, but you’re building the sport and you’re competing in that sport. For me, this is a big achievement.”
The Pharaohs finished fourth in the tournament with a 2-3 record, losing to Lebanon in the bronze medal game.
But the team’s efforts on and off the ice are beginning to pay off. Egypt’s Ministry of Youth and Sports asked Egypt Ice Hockey for a proposal “not just for ice hockey but for other winter sports: speed skating, curling, figure skating, alpine skiing and cross-country skiing,” Ramadan said. “Obviously ice hockey was the largest portion of that because we’ve had the most international exposure.”
Egypt Ice Hockey representatives were scheduled to meet with Youth and Sports Ministry officials, but Ramadan said the meeting has been postponed because of travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
For now, Ramadan is doing what he can from New Jersey. He first got involved in Egyptian hockey in 2016 after Yasser Ahmed, a longtime friend who was living in Cairo, discovered through an online search that Egypt had a club team.
“He reached out to them, started skating with them,” Ramadan said. “They mentioned that they’re doing this tournament in Morocco. They said, ‘Do you want to join, and do you know any Egyptians who would want to play?’ I’ve been playing since I was a kid, so he reached out to me and two of his cousins. We all agreed to buy tickets and start training, and we hopped on a plane four weeks later.”
It’s not easy playing hockey in Egypt. Equipment is expensive and hard to come by for the nearly 120 men’s and women’s players in the country. The three rinks in Cairo where they play are only about 40 feet long — about 20 percent the size of an NHL rink.
While the season is over in many hockey countries in the northern part of the world, ice hockey is being played at places you may not necessarily expect. On the equator of all places, an ice hockey tournament was inaugurated. Small indeed, however, undoubtedly substantial for its enthusiastic organizers: the Madaraka Day Cup.
The Madaraka Day Cup is the first international ice hockey tournament hosted in Nairobi, Kenya and marks another milestone in the early existence of Kenyan ice hockey. It involved the local Kenya Ice Lions against teams made up of members of embassies and NGOs from Canada, Europe and the United States.
And this is what it looked like the moment the Kenyans beat Canada:
What originally started as a gimmick a few years ago, providing ice skating opportunities to the guests of the Panari Hotel in Nairobi, has grown out of proportions and became an undisputable quest for recognition by their peers of the worldwide ice hockey community for the continuous growing number of Kenyan ice hockey players.
Madaraka Day Cup: the Origins
“Madaraka Day, a national holiday in Kenya which is celebrated on 1st June of each year, commemorates Kenya’s anniversary of gaining internal self-rule from the United Kingdom,” explains Rob Ao Opiyo, one of the players of the Kenyan Ice Lions and involved in the local organizing committee of the tournament. Madaraka in the local language translates as ‘power’ or ‘responsibility’.
“As told by Benard Azegere, one of the early ice hockey players, Bruce Strachan, came up with the idea in 2016,” further explains the Kenyan. “We played weekly pick-up hockey on Wednesdays. One week to the national holiday they were going for drinks, and Bruce said we should play for a 4-a-side Madaraka Day Cup. Since our original hockey jerseys came around the same time, they were also part of the inspiration. It was just a single game then. We called the opponent Team Ethiopia with Bruce Strachan, Takano, Paul Dormant and some others. The team members were expats with a hockey background working in the country. Most likely the name came about since Bruce just arrived a few days before from Ethiopia. The naming was rather for laughs. Team Kenya had about 3 Kenyan players: Jeff Magina, Amos Mungai and Benard Azegere. In total there were 12 players. It was not more than a pick-up game at that time really.”
However, this first edition of the tournament brought a big crowd to the ice rink. “The inaugural tournament was a life changing moment, mainly because normally when we are playing at the ice rink we never had that number of fans and spectators coming down to cheer for us,” says Rob Ao Opiyo. “So, for the first time we actually saw many fans and especially Kenyans. It felt like being at a Kenya rugby game, but now they were at an ice rink instead,” he jokes.
To bring in the fans, the organizers did their own promotion. “Most of the publicity to promote the game was through word of mouth, reaching out through family and friends. We put out some posters on social media as well. Also, the Panari Hotel where the ice rink is located helped us promoting the tournament,” says Ao Opiyo.
It helped as both local and international press was present providing some media coverage for the event. “We reached out to media outlets that reported on us before. So, we’re quite happy how this turned out. We had CGTN, a Chinese Station, Voice of America, the Standard newspaper and also ZDF, a German TV-channel which is working on a story about the Ice Lions.”
Ice Lions vs. the World
The Ice Lions’ opponents in the tournament consisted of teams with expats working in the embassies and NGOs in Nairobi. “Tim Colby is our head coach and the person who’s helped us grow both as players and as a league in the making. He’s the one who reached out to various embassies in Kenya such as the U.S., Canadian and also European embassies calling for interested parties to join in. We also got players who occasionally come to the rink to play with us during our practice sessions. The Finnish ambassador, Erik Lundberg, was among the players for Team Europe.”
3-on-3 plus Goalies
Due to the size of the rink, the games were played 3-on-3 with goalies. “We planned to have nine players a side,” says Ao Opiyo. “Unfortunately, some teams, such as Team Europe, didn’t have enough players. On Sunday, the last day of the tournament, some of the Kenyans volunteered to help balance the numbers. The importance was to have fun playing hockey after all.”
“Looking back at the first game played in 2016, it was just something for fun,” Ao Opiyo reminiscences. “That game was scheduled during our regular pick-up hockey session and played by whoever could make it. This tournament is a major moment for us Ice Lions. After our first international game with the UN and Slava Fetisov to highlight the issue of global warming, we took it to the next level with staging our first international tournament, as participants and hosts. Given the fact that Alibaba sent us out to Korea to explore the Winter Olympics and Tim Hortons sent us to Canada to play with Crosby and MacKinnon, we’re making progress and we’re serious in wanting to develop ice hockey here in Kenya.
“This amount of exposure strengthens us, but it also helps us to remember that we started off as a couple of guys having drinks and saying, ‘let’s host a tournament’. It’s just the beginning and I truly hope that when we are planning for the next event, we are seeing more players and teams coming in from abroad and also more funds turning up. So, there is a lot to look forward to from these experiences.”
The four teams post for a joint team photo following the 3-on-3 tournament.
In Kenya, there is only one ice hockey team, and they have nobody to play against. Every Wednesday and Sunday, the Kenya Ice Lions take to the first-ever ice rink in East and Central Africa: a 1,400-square-metre rink at the Panari Sky Center Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya. Located next to Nairobi National Park, is where the Ice Lions take to the rink and play the game they love.
n Canada, it is sometimes taken for granted that Canadians can always find someone to grab a stick, find some ice and play a game. Tim Hortons heard the story about the Kenya Ice Lions and decided to share our love of the game by bringing them to the birthplace of hockey.
“In Canada – and as a company – Hockey is part of our DNA,” says Jorge Zaidan, Head of Marketing, Tim Hortons Canada. “We are so inspired by the story of the Lions. Despite having no other teams to play against, the players on the Kenya Ice Lions’ passion for the game is unwavering. Their shared passion and love of the game knows no borders.”
Moved by their love for Canada’s favorite sport, Tim Hortons flew 12 members of the senior Ice Lions team to Canada to have the opportunity to finally play their first game ever against another team. After dressing in brand new CCM hockey equipment and personalized jerseys, they discovered they were in for an even bigger surprise: Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon were joining them on the ice as teammates.
“I was honoured to be able to join the Ice Lions as they played their first game against another team,” said Sidney Crosby, captain of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. “One of the things I love about hockey is how it’s able to reach so many people from so many countries around the world and bring them together.”
“While we played alongside the Ice Lions for their first game, we know it won’t be their last,” said Colorado Avalanche star, Nathan MacKinnon. “The team’s genuine passion and excitement for hockey is contagious – they were amazing teammates and it was great to play with them.”
“It is a dream to not only have the chance to play in Canada, but to play – for the first time – in full gear alongside two of the greatest players of the game,” says Benard Azegere, captain of the Kenya Ice Lions.” When we first started playing in Kenya, we didn’t even have full equipment, but now not only do we have that, we can say we’ve played a real game with some All-Star teammates.”
Tim Hortons made a donation to Kenya’s Youth Hockey League to help ensure that the Ice Lions’ passion for the sport lives on for the next generation. Check out full video of the Kenya Ice Lions hockey game with Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon,
Egypt Ice Hockey president Sameh Ramadan is trying to stage a game at the Egyptian pyramids next winter — on a full-sized, synthetic rink — as a way to help his program get recognized by the International Ice Hockey Federation
The hieroglyphics can be found adorning the tombs at Egypt’s ancient Beni Hassan burial site. They depict two men, each holding a long palm-tree branch, with slightly curved ends. They’re pointing them at the ground, crossing one over the other.
Ignore the desert garb, and it almost looks like they’re taking a hockey faceoff. There’s an ancestral reason for this: Ancient Egyptians created a game in which sticks were used to smack around a semicircle created from papyrus fibers wrapped in leather.
In essence, Sameh Ramadan isn’t trying to bring hockey to the Egyptian pyramids. He’s trying to bring it back.
Ramadan is the president of Egypt Ice Hockey as well as a captain for its national club team, which will compete inthe first Arab Club Cup Championshipbeginning April 3 in Abu Dhabi. It’s a tournament that seeks to spotlight the hockey programs of Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco, the only nation among the group currently recognized by the International Ice Hockey Federation.
“This tournament is a coming-out party for all these teams on an international stage,” Ramadan said.
It’s another step forward for the nascent hockey program in Egypt, which is seeking an endorsement from the nation’s governing sports bodies as its official national hockey team, which is necessary for application to the IIHF. To be granted membership, Ramadan has to prove the program’s viability, relevance and capacity for growth.
“Basically, all I need now is a letter from my sports minister that says, ‘Egypt Ice Hockey represents the ice hockey interests of Egypt.’ No money involved. Just saying the IIHF can talk to us. And then we can put in an application,” Ramadan said.
Egypt Ice Hockey’s sweaters sport one of hockey’s most memorable logos: the image of a pharaoh wearing a “Friday The 13th”-style goalie mask.
In other words, Hockey Egypt has to get these gatekeepers’ attention. That is why it is playing a game at the pyramids.
“We’re trying to get a full-sized rink. As of now, it’s going to be synthetic, for budget reasons, but we’re trying to get the sponsorships to do a full ice rink. We’re trying to target December or January in the event we can do an ice rink because it’s cold enough,” said Ramadan, who said several sign-offs from the government are required before the game can happen.
Other events have been held at the pyramids — everything from a David Guetta rave to an international squash tournament. But never hockey. Well, at least not since B.C.
“Hockey being played in front of the pyramids … that would be an iconic image. That would sweep the globe,” said Rob Ruszala of The Hockey Foundation.
Ruszala would know about playing hockey in iconic places. The last game he organized made the Guinness Book of World Records.
The Hockey Foundation is a New York-based nonprofit organization that seeks to support and grow the sport in emerging communities. In places such as, for example, the Himalayan region of Ladakh, India, where The Hockey Foundation helped facilitatea world record for the highest-altitude hockey game, at 14,340 feet above sea level.
“Our pilot program was in the Indian Himalayas,” Ruszala said. “The motivation behind this is that India does not have a regulation-sized rink in its entire country. So we were able to procure the boards, ship them over and donate them to the program. So we staged the Himalayan game to bring more interest to their developing program, but the long-lasting effect was to have a regulation-sized rink in the country.”
When it comes to a game at the pyramids, it’s not simply for the stunning visuals and novelty of the stunt. “We’re not doing it for the photo op. We’re doing it for the legacy impact,” he said.
The legacy of hockey in Egypt is one of humble beginnings.
Egypt has a population of 98.9 million people but only three ice rinks, none of them regulation size and all of them housed within shopping malls in Cairo.
Ramadan’s parents lived in a suburb of Cairo, and the family’s apartment was across the street from one of the three ice rinks in Egypt. The rinks are what one might expect them to be: each located within a mall in Cairo, each about 25 percent the size of an NHL rink (or about 300 meters long), with no Zambonis or even skate sharpeners.
“Two of our players had never had their skates sharpened,” Ramadan said of his national club team. “But you’d be shocked: Because they played on such crappy ice all the time, they were able to get up to speed quickly. [Seeing them on groomed, regulation ice] was like watching ducks fly for the first time.”
The rink near his parents’ home opened in 1997. Ramadan remembers asking his cousin to bring some hockey equipment to his apartment so they could go across the street and play.
His experience shows hockey’s place in Egyptian culture just 20 years ago. “We tried getting on the ice [with equipment], and the security guard stopped us,” Ramadan said. “He thought we were carrying weapons. No one had any idea what hockey was.”
Fast-forward to 2016. Ramadan is living in New Jersey and a father of two daughters. His friend Yasser Ahmed, the Egyptian national team’s goalie and director of hockey operations, discovered that there was an actual hockey team playing at the old rink in Cairo: The Anubis Club, a group of local players and a program completely anonymous to the local populace.
Ramadan, who has an MBA in marketing, reached out to the team. To get noticed, he reasoned, they needed to rebrand. The team became Egypt Ice Hockey, sporting one of the most memorable logos in the world: the image of a pharaoh wearing a “Friday The 13th”-style goalie mask.
Egypt Ice Hockey players (from left) Sameh Ramadan, Emir Elkholy, Yasser Ahmed and Ryan Elkholy visited the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, where the goalie stick Ahmed used in the 2016 African Club Cup was on display alongside Auston Matthews’ jersey
By July 2016, Egypt was playing in its first international ice hockey tournament: the African Ice Hockey Cup for club teams, held in Morocco. (The tournament had the support of the Czech Republic ice hockey federation, which even donated a bus with Jaromir Jagr’s image on its side.) The rink’s size allowed for only 3-on-3 hockey — the only regulation-sized rink on the continent is located in South Africa — and the Egyptians were, well, very much the newbies there. “We had no business being there with that specific team,” Ramadan said.
But the trip changed the course of Egyptian ice hockey — thanks, in part, to Reddit.
A man from the American embassy showed up at the Moroccan club tournament, asking to buy a Team Egypt jersey. Ramadan was shocked by this happenstance and asked how the man knew about the team. It turns out the Egyptian national team had gone viral onthe Reddit hockey board, thanks to its unique branding. It was at that moment, Ramadan says, that everything clicked: a collection of ex-pats and club players could be Egypt’s national team, and together they could push for IIHF recognition.
That tournament is also where they hooked up with The Hockey Foundation.
Ruszala sat down with Ramadan and Ahmed about 18 months ago to begin formulating a plan for how to support and grow hockey in Egypt. It was clear, right away, that viable gear was the most pressing issue — including, for example, giving the goaltenders something more than shin guards.
“They only had one set of goalie pads, and every game they’d only have one goalie suit up. Mite or adult, it didn’t matter because it was one set of pads. I was floored by that,” Ruszala said.
Within a month, Hockey Foundation sent six sets of pads. Then came at least 100 other pieces of equipment, used gear the Foundation had collected in the U.S. and Canada. Sending it to Egypt proved costly, especially with local tariffs. “People don’t realize it costs up to $400 to finally get it into the hands of wherever its headed,” Ruszala said. “We’re hoping the sport revs up big enough that we can start sending over bulk shipments.”
Egypt’s first foray into international hockey came at the inaugural African Ice Hockey Cup for club teams in Morocco in July 2016. Tunisia’s Carthage Eagles routed Egypt’s Cairo Anabus 19-0 in the opener before going on to beat Moroccan for the title game
Getting it revved up depends largely on getting Egypt to sign off on hockey officially and then investing in it. Ramadan, ever the marketing guy, decided that his best shot at this wasn’t to narrowly pitch hockey to the Youth Sports Minister and the national government. At the World Youth Forum last November, he made his pitch for a full winter sports federation that would include hockey.
“I don’t want to just grow ice hockey in Egypt. I want to grow a winter sports federation,” Ramadan said. “I told them to build me a rink, and I would have speedskating and curling and figuring skating and ice hockey all under one roof.”
He doesn’t want all of this opportunity just for men and boys, either. Ramadan has a 10-year-old daughter who plays goalie and an 8-year-old daughter who’s a forward. Kuwait and UAE have women’s teams, and he feels it’s essential that Egypt get women involved in winter sports as well.
“It’s Egypt. It’s a Muslim country. We want to promote women participating,” he said, pointing to the recent visit by members of the UAE women’s team to theWashington Capitals, with culminated with forward Fatima Al Ali dropping the ceremonial puck at a game while wearing a Capitals jersey and a hijab.
Ruszala said that participation of women in hockey is one of the harbingers The Hockey Foundation looks for in measuring the growth of an emerging hockey market. “It’s not just for boys. It’s all-inclusive,” he said.
Ramadan wants to make sure women get involved in winter sports in Egypt, as they have in some other Arab countries. UAE forward Fatima Al Ali, right, practiced with Alex Ovechkin and other Capitals players during a visit to Washington, D.C., in 2017
They want to see more participants, not only on teams but also at clinics. “If we’re investing time and equipment and the numbers are stagnant, maybe that region isn’t ready for the sport yet,” Ruszala said.
But the last requirement is, at this point, the trickiest one for Egyptian hockey: formal recognition.
“In Egypt’s case, they’re like an NCAA club right now,” Ruszala said. “They need to be formally recognized by the ministry of sport as the chief representatives of hockey in Egypt.”
Which brings us back to the pyramids.
Erica Jong once referred to jealousy as “all the fun you think they had.” No matter what the level of play in a game at the pyramids might look like, the fact is that one will have been played there. Ruszala has already seen the effect a game in one country can have on another.
“The Pakistanis reached out to us after the India game,” he said.
The pyramids game isn’t just about the growth of hockey in Egypt, though Ramadan sees it as an essential step forward down that path. It’s about making a statement in Africa and the Middle East about the viability of the game, the continuing effort to alert the region to hockey’s presence and how it fits into their changing approach to sports.
“A lot of countries just focus on the sports where they have the best chance to medal and not the recreational aspects of the sport, which is where hockey in Egypt is,” Ruszala said. “Sport for recreation and sport for competition are relatively new concepts.”
As is hockey.
“It’s a new concept. It’s a novel concept. But it’s not an unfamiliar concept,” he said. “Skating they get, but now there’s an educational barrier. So this can’t be a one-off novelty.”
Ramadan can feel the momentum. The Arab Club Cup will bolster Egypt’s profile. So did his team’s gear going viral, both on Reddit and in photographs such as this one, which was featured on TSN and shows Adrian Mizzi, a man who goes by the nickname “The Travelling Goalie,” suited up in the desert wearing team gear:
The 35-year-old, who is head of Hockey Algeria and led the country’s first-ever representative team to a creditable third-place finish in the inaugural African Club Cup in 2016, is looking to keep progressing the nation in his beloved sport.
Kerbouche will be taking his Algerian team (Algiers Corsaires) to compete in the Arab Club Cup which also features Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and the UAE, and is due to be televised on Abu Dhabi sports channel early next month.
“It’s a nice place to go, I lived there for a little while, and I’m excited to be going back there,” Kerbouche said.
“This will be the first time I’m taking my club out there and it should be fun, there is a good amount of teams and the competition should be good, I’m expecting some decent players to be at the tournament.
“Especially from Lebanon their team should be packed full of Canadian juniors with Lebanese descent so it should be a decent level of hockey and it will be a good chance to publicise it in the international media.”
Kerbouche, who attended Central Foundation School in Bow, managed to obtain funding for his team to represent Algeria and scored their first-ever goal, against Morocco in 2008.
He went on to play as a forward for Lee Valley Lions and Streatham Redskins in the English National Ice Hockey League – as well as working for leisure provider GLL at Streatham ice rink.
At that same time, Kerbouche continued his determined efforts to spread the growth of the sport in his parents’ homeland – quite a challenge with only one permanent ice rink and minimal government backing.
And he is now hoping the tournament will be a success, adding: “I’m hoping for it to be an annual thing or a semi-annual thing so it happens every couple of years. There’s a lot of expenses involved, but it’s definitely something I’d like to continue.”
Kerbouche is also keen to keep building up the sport, saying: “There is an appetite for it, it’s just the logistics of getting equipment and coaches out there as I can only be out there for a certain amount of time a year.”
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