Two months ago, most of the kids in the “Try Hockey” program had never even tried on a pair of skates. Now, they’re hockey players.
Twenty boys and girls from ages seven to 10 spent the 10-week program learning everything from holding a stick to skating drills. Many of them loved it so much they say they’ll sign up for minor hockey programs in the fall.
Some of the kids are newcomers and others grew up in the community.
Dana Eldlk is one of the players.
Before she laced up her skates for the first time, she did gymnastics. But she said hockey is now her favourite sport after completing the program.
“I feel like hockey is really unique because I really love it and it’s better than anything [else],” she said. “My parents said they were really proud of me.”
The program was organized by the Ummah Masjid mosque in Halifax in partnership with the Halifax Hawks Minor Hockey Association.
It was meant to remove barriers that could keep some kids from getting the chance to play.
“Most people, when they play hockey, they have their fathers and grandfathers to rely on,” said Ahmad Hussein, the chair of the board of the Ummah mosque.
“But for newcomers, they struggle with the concepts of how to buy the gear, how to register, why skating is important, not just the game of hockey.”
The program was free thanks to sponsorships from national organizations like Jumpstart and Hockey Canada, as well as local donations and a discount from the Hawks’ equipment provider.
A Halifax Hawks coach designed the program, and local players signed up to help coach and tie skates.
Hussein said the response from the wider community has been “very warm.”
He said he wants Muslim kids to be able to talk about hockey with their peers and feel like they’re part of something bigger.
“It’s a national sport in Canada and we believe that everyone deserves a good chance at playing it,” he said.
“I think the kids get a sense of integration in society when they actually can talk about something that everyone else is talking about.”
Islam Omeran, one of the players, said he loved trying the sport with friends from his community.
“I really liked my experience in hockey,” Omeran said. “It actually was better than I ever thought it would be.”
Hussein said part of the success of the program was its cultural sensitivity. The organizers took into consideration how parents could pray at the rink and how girls could wear a hijab under their helmet.
The Hawks made headlines last season after one of their players was the target of racial slurs at a tournament on P.E.I.
Craig Robinson, a vice-president with the Hawks, said the program was in the works before that incident, but the organization hopes greater diversity in hockey will help prevent similar situations in the future.
“Halifax is very much a changing population when it comes to the community, new arrivals,” Robinson said. “And so we wanted to make sure that if we’re the hockey association for Halifax, that we should represent the city of Halifax.”
“This is all in the interests of not changing the sport, but just adding that element of diversity in sport,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with hockey. It’s only the barriers that prevent people from participating in hockey.”
Even though many people in the Muslim community didn’t know much about hockey before the program, Hussein said the demand was huge.
“When we opened up registration, within 10 hours, we had 300 families registered for the program,” he said.
Robinson said the Hawks are now looking for new sponsorships and funding opportunities so they can continue the program.
“[Hockey] might be a bit of a secret. It might be a challenge to find out what it is, but stick with it, because once you get in, you can be part of a great family.”