When Benard Azegere first announced he’d discovered his life’s great passion on a hockey rink, his family assumed he’d gone mad.
Azegere, after all, lives in Nairobi, Kenya, a short drive from the Earth’s equator on Africa’s eastern edge. He grew up in the rural hills of the Rift Valley, where the sporting legends are some of the world’s best distance runners, including marathon world record-holder Eliud Kipchoge.
But Azegere, though he’d sweated through twice-weekly mandatory 10-kilometre runs in high school, didn’t much like running — “It felt like punishment,” he said — and while he’d tried popular-in-Kenya sports such as soccer and rugby, nothing had ever captivated him like hockey. He’d first seen the game on TV while watching a feed of the 2010 Olympics. He remembers being smitten by the wild speed of Alex Ovechkin and the Russian national team. He would take his first tentative steps on ice a few years later at Nairobi’s Panari Hotel, home of the only ice rink in East Africa. And soon enough he’d be a fixture at the Panari shinny games first struck up by Canadians working in Kenya and later populated by ex-pat hockey lovers from Japan and Slovakia and Finland and beyond.
Never mind that Azegere’s skates were rarely sharp (the skate sharpener at the rink has long been on the fritz and the only other working unit in the country is located 90 minutes away). Never mind that he and his hockey friends didn’t have proper equipment (Azegere played without a helmet and pads for most of the first few years). Although his loved ones were bewildered by his attraction to Canada’s national winter sport, Azegere was hooked.
“I remember going home one day after I was hit with a puck on my left eyebrow. I had around eight stitches and the T-shirt I was wearing was all bloody. So when I went home, my family was like, ‘Really? Do you want to kill yourself? Don’t do this again. Don’t go back to that rink,’” Azegere was saying this week. “So I just kept quiet. The next day, I was back at the rink.”
Azegere was speaking in Toronto, where as the captain of Kenya’s fledgling national hockey team, the Ice Lions, he’s been enjoying a watershed week. Thanks to a sponsorship from Tim Hortons, which featured the Ice Lions in a viral internet video that documented a Toronto shinny game played alongside NHL stars Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon, Azegere has been basking in his celebrity status. On Thursday night, he was in the crowd as the Maple Leafs took on Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins, Azegere’s favourite NHL team. On Thursday morning, he was being shown around the Penguins’ dressing room by Crosby himself.
“What a thrill,” Azegere said, speaking of his interactions with Crosby and MacKinnon.
Scheduled to head back to Nairobi this weekend, Azegere said he’s hoping the Ice Lions can parlay their moment in the spotlight into a serious run at qualifying for the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
“I believe currently anything is possible. Once you have a dream and you work on it, you can achieve it with hard work,” Azegere said. “For us coming to Canada, playing a match in Canada. It was like a dream. Never in my life did I think I’d have a chance to come and play in Canada. But thanks to Tim Hortons, we had the time of our lives here in Canada. Same thing. We have a dream to one day play in the Winter Olympics. I think our dream is valid. We are not limiting it. Nothing is limiting us … If we get the necessary support, we’re good to go.”
The dream of 2022, of course, ranks beyond a long shot. Barring a benevolent shift in qualifying standards, Kenya has about as much of a chance at competing in the 2022 Olympic men’s hockey tournament as Canada does of imminently unseating Kenya for global marathoning dominance. (Just for the record, the Canadian men’s marathon record, set by Jerome Drayton in 1975, is more than eight minutes slower than Kipchoge’s world-best time.)
That doesn’t mean Canadians should stop running the marathon. And it certainly doesn’t mean Kenyans ought to dispense with their hockey fixation. Tim Colby, a Canadian-born Nairobi resident who had regularly traded passes with the Ice Lions at those Panari Hotel shinny games and now spends time coaching some of the 28 aspiring Kenyan youth and adult players, said the recent media crush has only intensified interest in the sport in Nairobi.
“It’s exploding like crazy now,” Colby said.
It wasn’t always so. The Panari Hotel only opened its ice rink in 2006. About one-third the size of a typical hockey ice surface, it’s primarily used for pleasure skating and costs about $12 per person per hour to go for a twirl. The ice, said Colby, who grew up in Toronto, is “pretty good.” And the novelty is considerable. After a skate, you can stand on a balcony of the hotel and look out on Nairobi National Park, the domain of safari seekers ogling lions and giraffes and rhinos.
“It’s quite the weird contrast,” Colby said. “Like Sidney Crosby said in the (viral video) interview, ‘Who would have even thought there was ice in Kenya?’ Let alone a bunch of guys who want to play. Let alone a bunch of guys who are working their ass off for it.”
Indeed, some of Azegere’s teammates endure long commutes, either on multiple minibuses or rickety motorcycles, to get to the rink. And if Nairobi’s chaotic streets aren’t a stereotypical hockey backdrop, the pull of the ice is universal. To paraphrase one of the Ice Lions in their famed video: You get on the ice and you forget about everything else.
“It’s a good place to lose yourself. And I think when we all play hockey in Canada, that’s our great release, too,” Colby said. “I know when I’ve been stressed in my life, I’d go play my beer-league hockey at night and that was my release. It’s cool. It’s kind of a neat similarity.”
To help make achieving that release easier, Colby has set up a GoFundMe page (https://www.gofundme.com/kenya-ice-lions-hockey-campaign), where the Ice Lions have outlined a three-year budget that’ll go toward entrenching the game in Kenya. For all the helpful publicity of the Crosby-MacKinnon video, Kenyan hockey still lacks many basics. A skate-sharpening machine, which runs about $6,000, would be a helpful start. Goaltending equipment wouldn’t hurt (for years, the Kenyans have been shooting at the rubber penguin that stood sentry in front of the net; hitting the penguin above the belt counted as a goal).
And the plans get bigger. There’s hope that Kenya’s youth team, which currently consists of about 17 players aged 10 through 16, might come to Ottawa next year for the Bell Canada Cup minor hockey tournament. There’s a fledgling women’s team that needs ice time and coaching. The fundraising goal is in excess of $250,000; as of Friday morning, the Ice Lions had received donations of about $2,600. As they might say in Kenya, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
“You’ve got to have a dream,” Colby said. “You might get halfway there.”
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk