Kenya’s hockey team has Olympic dreams
Kenya may be known more for producing the world’s greatest long-distance runners than winter athletes, but the country’s only ice hockey team are hoping their recent trip to Canada will help change that narrative.
Recently the Kenya Ice Lions, who are passionate but have nobody to play against back home, were featured in a heartwarming video in which Canadian coffee-and-donut chain Tim Hortons — eager to change the situation of Kenya’s only ice hockey team — brought them to Toronto to play their first game.
The video’s highlight came when National Hockey League stars Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon reduced the unsuspecting Ice Lions to tears as they walked into a locker room wearing the team’s green uniforms to join them for their game.
“You know, for us this is all like a dream come true,” Ice Lions captain and founder Benard Azegere said during a visit to Toronto. “I felt like I was in heaven.”
The Ice Lions, based in a country too near the equator to have a real winter, are a sort of modern-day version of the Jamaica bobsleigh team that went to the 1988 Olympics, and whose bizarre story inspired the making of the film “Cool Runnings.”
Azegere said the Ice Lions learned to play the game on a rink inside a Nairobi hotel with the help of online tutorials and a friendly group at the city’s High Commission of Canada who donated sticks and random pieces of equipment to the team.
“We didn’t have goalie equipment and nobody can take that risk to be a goalie without the proper gear,” said Azegere.
“So what we used to do was we had a rubber penguin and we used to put it at the center of the goal, and to score you had to hit the penguin above the belly.”
Azegere said there are only 30 hockey players in Kenya, a country with a population of nearly 50 million, a far cry from Canada where, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation, there are 637,000 registered players.
‘I kept on falling’
The 33-year-old Kenyan’s first exposure to the fast-paced and physical sport was in 2010 when he saw a game on TV from that year’s Vancouver Olympics, and he was immediately struck by the smooth way the players were able to move around the ice.
That prompted Azegere to test his ability on the rink inside the Panari Sky Center Hotel, where the Ice Lions now practice twice a week.
“It wasn’t as pleasant as I thought it would be,” Azegere said. “It was like walking on a tile floor full of soapy water and I kept on falling but I was determined to do it. I kept on falling. It was painful but I managed.”
The 1,400-square-meter ice surface is meant for leisure skating and lacks the rounded corners of traditional hockey rinks, but it is home for the Ice Lions, who shared videos of their practices on social media in a bid to recruit players.
When the Tim Hortons chain learned about the Ice Lions they decided to fly them to Toronto where they were given personalized jerseys, new hockey equipment and a chance to play against a recreational team made up of firefighters.
Azegere said the trip to Canada, where hockey is a national obsession, has given the team plenty of exposure in Kenya where requests are pouring in from people who want to join them.
While the Ice Lions still have no other teams to compete against at home, Azegere is hopeful more ice surfaces will be built in Kenya so that one day a proper league can be formed.
Only two Kenyan athletes have ever competed at the Winter Olympics but Azegere hopes to one day watch a hockey team from his country competing against the world’s best players. “Our intention right now... is not only to feature in a future Winter Olympics but we have a dream of making ice hockey big in Kenya,” said Azegere. “We are known in the (sporting) world for other reasons, mainly track and field, and rugby, but we are trying to go an extra mile and fly our Kenyan flag in a different way.”
Hurling, Hurling Wild Geese Trophy 2018, Galway Tribesman vs. Kilkenny
Table tennis, ITTF World Tour 2018 Austrian Open
Auto racing, F1 2018 Heineken Brazilian Grand Prix, Main Race
American football, FOX College Football 2018/19, Texas vs. Texas Tech
Baseball, MLB Japan All-STAR Series 2018, MLB vs. Samurai Japan
Judo, World Judo Tour 2018, Tashkent
Soccer, German Bundesliga 2018/19,Leipzig vs. Leverkusen
Soccer, German Bundesliga 2018/19, Frankfurt vs. Schalke
Basketball, NBA, Los Angeles Lakers vs. Sacramento Kings
Soccer, CSL, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao vs. Tianjin Teda
Ice Lions, Kenya’s only ice hockey team, wear green uniforms and pose for a team photo following their debut game against a recreational team made up of firefighters in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. — Reuters
A member of Kenya’s ice hockey team gears up for practice. — Reuters
Members of Kenya’s only ice hockey team sit on the bench during a practice session at the Solar Ice Rink in Nairobi. It’s East Africa and Central Africa’s only ice rink, and welcomes any and everyone who wants to lace up. — Reuters