Blessing the ice down in Africa

The National Hockey League has been marketing the idea that “Hockey is for Everyone” for awhile now and it’s a good message to send.

No matter what race, gender, religion, age or sexual orientation you are, there’s always a place for you at the rink and on the ice. Unfortunately, that idea doesn’t ring true for everyone.

However, thanks to the efforts of Canadian coffee giant Tim Horton’s, people can see that hockey can be enjoyed in arguably the most unlikely of locations, Africa.

With the release of a video this week, the hockey world was introduced to the Kenya Ice Lions and their interesting story.

Until this week, the Kenya Ice Lions, the only team in the country, had never played an actual game. According to the Huffington Post, the team would hold twice-weekly practices on a rink at a hotel in Nairobi.

The rink doesn’t have rounded edges like you’d find typically, and since there weren’t any other teams, the Lions would do intrateam drills or “shinny,” an informal style of hockey.

The roster only has 12 players with no goaltenders and they play with minimal equipment. A Guardian article said that to substitute for a goaltender, the Lions put a rubber penguin in the net and if a puck hit it, it counted as a goal.

Yet even though they had to adapt some of the rules and style of play due to their unique situation, the players love the game and it’s evident with the bright smiles on their faces.

It wasn’t until the Lions started posting some of their practices to YouTube that people started to become aware of them.

Eventually, Tim Horton’s took notice and decided to step in and help out. The company brought all 12 players to Canada to play a game against a team of Canadian firefighters two months ago, and before the game, the Lions were hooked up with new skates, sticks, equipment and even got personalized jerseys.

As heartwarming as that is, the story gets better. After getting all of their brand-new goods, the Lions got another special gift in the form of two famous hockey players. Tim Horton’s brought NHL superstars Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon to come suit up for the Lions during the game that day.

When you watch the clip that Tim Horton’s released, one of the players talks to the team about playing their best and “let’s push hard,” and then you see the players’ faces light up when they see Crosby and MacKinnon enter the locker room.

One of them even touches Crosby’s face in disbelief, wondering if the future Hall of Famer is really standing in front of him as another cries with joy.

Once the Lions get on the ice, you see how happy they are to be there, not just to play with Crosby and MacKinnon, but just to play an actual game. After the Canadian team scored first, one of the Lions ties it and the bench erupts with joy.

After the game is over, Crosby talks about how great it is that hockey can connect with people all over the globe and MacKinnon said how he enjoyed seeing the “genuine excitement” that the Lions had out there.

It’d be hard for anyone not to enjoy it, unless their hearts were as cold as the ice they played on.

Think the story ends there? It somehow manages to get even better. The Lions have attempted to grow the sport in Kenya for a while and Tim Horton’s has stepped up to fund a youth league. A women’s hockey team is also being put together and there are hopes that teams from all over the continent will come together for an all-African tournament.

The Lions are even expanding their horizons when it comes to positions. After borrowing a goalie from the Canadian team during the game in August, the Guardian article says that the new hockey gear that the Lions received from Tim Horton’s and hockey equipment company CCM included goalie equipment and that two of the players are going to try to mind the net.

Once again, the Lions are using YouTube to help their program, this time to help train their new goalies.

It can be difficult to adopt a new sport and even more difficult to expand it, especially in a country known more for soccer and long-distance running. However, the Lions are doing the best they can, and with their Canadian sponsors and publicity from the NHL, things are getting a little easier. Not only that, they got to take part in a once-in-a-lifetime experience and play with two NHL stars.

That’s something that not only the Lions, but fans all over Africa can take pride in.

Hockey isn’t perfect and it never will be, but when you see stories like the Lions’, it makes you think that progress is being made in truly expanding the sport. Maybe now that every time the puck drops in Kenya, a message will start to sink in to people’s heads.

No matter who you are or what country you hail from, hockey is meant for everyone.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal. net.