Rouba El Khatib said hockey came naturally the first time she picked up a stick in gym class.
The 17-year-old was not familiar with the sport having immigrated to Canada with her family from Lebanon, but the Hockey 4 Youth program gave her and hundreds of young people like her a chance to play.
“When I first hopped on the ice, I was so scared because I was sliding everywhere, but I used to roller skate in Lebanon and I stuck to the same movements and it worked,” El Khatib said. “A lot of the girls on the ice were surprised that it was my first time and so were my teachers, but I really love it.”
Hockey 4 Youth was founded by Moezine Hasham, whose parents immigrated to Canada from Uganda when people of South Asian decent were expelled from the African country in the early 1970s.
“At the age of 6, I got my first set of equipment from my neighbor across the street, my mom had talked to her and her son had outgrown the equipment,” Hasham said. “That’s how I got started and I played right through university.”
Hasham was inspired to start the program by his late father Noorali along with Willie O’Ree, the first Black player in the NHL. It introduces the game to Canadian newcomers, providing ice time, equipment and lessons. There is also an off-ice component, which helps develop life skills.
Launched in 2015, the Hockey 4 Youth Foundation offers 11 programs to schools in Vancouver and Vernon, British Columbia; Windsor, Toronto and Ottawa, Ontario; and Montreal, Quebec. Over 700 youth representing 41 different countries have taken part in the program.
A group of 20 players were selected to represent the program are at the NHL All-Star Weekend in Toronto as guests of Rogers, who presented Hockey 4 Youth with a $50,000 donation at the Red Carpet entering Scotiabank Arena on Thursday. Prior to the presentation, the group had an opportunity to meet Marie-Philip Poulin captain of the Canadians women’s national team and Montreal of the Professional Women’s Hockey League, along with Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals.
“Hockey is not just a game, it’s Canadian culture,” said Firaol Yadetta from Ethiopia, who went through the program and now is a director with Hockey 4 Youth. “When I learned to play hockey, I was learning about the Canadian culture, and it was a very good experience for me.”
The Hockey 4 Youth program features young players from non-traditional hockey countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South America. Most had never seen the game before putting on skates and equipment.
Among those who made the trip to Toronto were Valentina Rodriguez, 18, Ayuesa Arquero, 15, and Evelyn Powless, 14.
“I usually played individual sports, but playing hockey gave me the opportunity to play with other people,” Joy Uchenna, 17, originally from Nigeria said. “That collaboration and seeing people work together for one common goal, I love that about it, that’s what motivated me to try it.” — Derek Van Diest