Finding their feet Play-to-learn and skating programs help newcomer youth connect with community at large on city’s hockey rinks
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Rahaf Abdul Karim secures her sports hijab before putting on her helmet. Stick in hand, the 14-year-old is raring to get out on the ice before the playoffs start.
“I like it when people say ‘oh, Rahaf is good at hockey’ or something like that,” she says. “When I hear that, I am proud of how far I’ve come. When I first skated, I knew nothing. Now that I’ve learnt it and gone further with it, it makes me feel proud. It makes me feel powerful.”
Rahaf had never seen snow or natural ice before she arrived in Winnipeg in December 2015. It was the first time she had experienced a winter as harsh and cold as the ones here; in Syria, where she is originally from, the air never gets this frigid.
“It was my first time seeing snow,” she says. “Back in Syria we had no snow. It was so pretty. I didn’t know it could be so pretty.”
Rahaf’s father, Murhaf Abdul Karim, and mother, Rulah Raslan, had left Syria for Jordan, where they lived as refugees for six years, before their application to come to Canada was accepted.
The couple decided to leave their home country because of the still-ongoing Syrian war, uprooting themselves from everything familiar to ensure their children would grow up in a safer environment.
Rahaf, seven at the time, had already experienced plenty of upheaval. Moving to Canada was yet another change to contend with.
“At first I felt like an outcast because I knew nothing about the language and culture here,” she says. “I had no idea. I felt scared because I thought everybody was going to be better than me.”
Rahaf joined a hockey program at her elementary school in Grade 2. She had never put on a pair of skates or picked up a hockey stick in her life and yet there was something about the sport that resonated with her.
Skating was a challenge at first; she fell numerous times. But seeing other children gliding around made her even more determined to learn.
Rahaf, a forward, currently plays every day: during school hours as part of the Winnipeg Jets Hockey Academy (WJHA) program; after school when she practises with her team; and on weekends, when games take place.
It’s not something she minds at all.
“Skating for the first time, it may not look hard, but it’s really hard and to be able to skate and do it fast and with the puck and everything… I feel cool, doing turns. I never thought I was able to do things like this. Back home I never got these opportunities; there was nothing like that. I get to do something that I wasn’t able to do there.”
Hockey is deeply embedded in Canadian culture. Passion for the sport runs deep, bordering on a religious experience. Fans are staunchly loyal to their teams and Saturday night, as everyone here knows, is hockey night.
Yet too often it’s a simplistic trope that fails to recognize the country’s growing diversity. For newcomers especially, many of whom are experiencing months of snow and bone-chilling temperatures for the first time, hockey is concept far too bizarre to imagine.
But still, the ice comes calling. More and more new immigrants, like Rahaf, can be found lacing up their skates at community centres and outdoor rinks.
Rudra Panchal, 18, also had never experienced snow or ice until he moved to Canada in 2016 from Ahmedabad in Gujarat, India.
Contending with the weather while acclimatizing to a new culture proved tricky but Panchal, who came with his family, took it all in stride.
Currently enrolled in the first year of the University of Manitoba’s engineering program, he plays forward in a beer league he formed with his friends. He wasn’t aware of ice hockey as a sport until Grade 7.
“I am a sporty person and I used to play cricket back in India. When I came here, I didn’t know there wasn’t much cricket here. Then when I went to middle school they told me ice hockey was a good sport to play here. When I started playing, I fell in love with ice hockey,” he says.
Encouraged by his teachers, Panchal joined the WJHA program where coaches first taught him to skate before putting a stick in his hands and letting him loose.
“It has been one of the best parts of my life.”–Rudra Panchal
“It has been one of the best parts of my life,” he says. “They taught me how fun it is; I fell a few times but then I balanced myself on the blades and I was skating around very soon.”
Panchal’s father Rakesh also encouraged him to pick up the sport. He says learn-to-skate and play-to-learn programs are invaluable to new immigrants.
“You need something to start something new. I appreciate this program; my son gets to play a different sport in a different country, which is like my home now.”
For Murray Cobb, WJHA director, stories like Rahaf’s and Rudra’s are what he and the other coaches live for.
The goal of the academy is to make the sport accessible to all the 700 students enrolled in the program, he says. Each child gains access to equipment, coaching and ice-time.
Students who take part are often youth who would not have had the chance to play the game. The academy focuses on marginalized segments of the population, working with Manitoba school divisions to identify students who would most benefit from the program, he says.
For Cobb, it’s not just about hockey. The program is not a feeder system to become part of the NHL team.
“Hockey is the vehicle to attract kids to the academic life,” he explains. “We are not trying to get them to be Jets players; this is a long-term program to get kids to stay connected to school.”
“You start at elementary, from Grade 4, and we will see you through to high school. We leverage the connections we have to offer university scholarships; we give the kids a chance to learn about employment possibilities, we open their minds to all the different things on offer.”–Murray Cobb
The biggest criteria for getting in? They should never have played hockey before.
“We trust the teachers and the principals of the school to encourage Indigenous kids, new Canadians, kids who have financial or social difficulties to join.
“You start at elementary, from Grade 4, and we will see you through to high school. We leverage the connections we have to offer university scholarships; we give the kids a chance to learn about employment possibilities, we open their minds to all the different things on offer.
“We are really invested in the kids; this is a long-term commitment to them,” he says.
The Winnipeg Jets have recognized the diversity of the sport’s inroads into marginalized communities in recent years. It has celebrated Indigenous culture with WASAC (Winnipeg Aboriginal Sport Achievement Centre) night, acknowledged Winnipeg’s Filipino community with a Filipino Heritage Night and more recently added a South Asian celebration this season to promote inclusivity in the sport.
Savan Keo, 17, started playing organized hockey with the WJHA when he was 11. He currently plays left wing for the Transcona Titans and says he enjoys the sport because it’s unique.
“It’s different from all the other sports out there, it’s really unique because you have to put on all the gear, the skates, the helmet. It’s something that helps me become happy during times of stress, and it keeps me occupied,” he shares.
His mother, Vanna Hing, is originally from Cambodia. She was worried at first, when he took up the sport, and remains concerned about her son’s safety when he’s on the ice.
“I worry about the physicality of the sport and cringe whenever someone hits the boards,” she says. “But I remind myself that all sports have their risk to them and as long as he is enjoying himself doing what he loves I’m OK with it.”
Keo credits the sport for keeping him mentally motivated. He says that playing hockey has taught him to be positive.
“It helps me push myself mentally to do better and gives me that mindset that anything can work your way if you work hard for it and have passion to reach your goals,” he says.
For Carolyn Trono, founder and executive director of Winnipeg Newcomer Sport Academy, sports such as hockey not only offer the physical benefits of being outside, but also present a way for newcomers to connect to the wider community.
“We teach sport to newcomers who have spent five years or less in Canada. Low-income is our focus; many of our participants are refugees and low-income newcomers to Canada,” she says.
The aim of the academy is to remove as many barriers as possible so newcomer children as well as youngsters who live in places that don’t have access to sports, can participate regularly in “quality, safe environments,” she says.
It started off as a soccer program but has evolved into a year-round multi-sport program.
“We get them fitted beginning of October and we start skating middle to end of October. The children get eight lessons indoors and then in the middle of December they go outside. They get to keep the skates until the end of the season.”–Carolyn Trono
“It’s not just hockey; it’s the skating. It’s the ability to skate because then there are so many things that they can participate in. Being outside and being physically active is very beneficial but being able to skate and take part in so many options available will bring about a sense of belonging because other Canadians can do it,” she says.
Winter sports are expensive; the price of skates alone can run into the hundreds of dollars.
To equip the children with skates, WNSA takes advantage of Jumpstart, a non-profit organization funded by public donations that go towards helping children access sports. Jumpstart’s programming support assists WNSA with buying skates which the children can keep for the year.
“We get them fitted beginning of October and we start skating middle to end of October. The children get eight lessons indoors and then in the middle of December they go outside. They get to keep the skates until the end of the season. Once they are done with the skates we store them, reusing those for the next season,” she explains.
Milki Gemechu, 11, learnt to play hockey at WNSA before graduating to WJHA. His father Abu, originally from Shashamane, Ethiopia, moved to Winnipeg in 2010 . The family lived downtown for their first eight years here before moving out of the inner-city.
Abu Gemechu says he is grateful to Trono and WNSA.
“She gave us the opportunity for free, my boys were very happy at that time. Milki is very active playing hockey. He makes me busy a lot because I have to drive him all the time to practice and to the games, but I am very happy that he enjoys it. I like driving my boys to different activities,” he says.
Milki, who was born in Canada, learned to skate at six. Like Rahaf, Rudra and Savan, he too joined the WJHA elementary school program. He started off playing every Wednesday, during school hours, and last year, when he entered Grade 5, he joined the team where he plays centre.
“I have practice every Tuesday and Friday after school. I like skating around and shooting the puck. It’s really fun, I like the feeling of it. When I first started skating I fell right away, it was pretty hard to learn but I really liked it, I thought it was a lot of fun and that’s why I kept doing it,” he says.
“If I have the chance I would like to play professionally.”
His brother Ana, 13, tried playing hockey but prefers basketball, Milki says. In the summer they play together but for Milki “hockey is better.”
Hockey has taken over former basketball fan Finn Batoon’s life, too.
It’s a Saturday morning and Finn — who plays right wing with the AA U13 Raiders — is raring to go.
The 11-year-old looks like he’s been on ice all his life as he glides, fingers gripping his hockey stick, eyes firmly trained on the puck.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Finn only learned to skate three years ago. He had never heard of hockey before he came to Canada with his family. Originally from Tuguegarao City in the Philippines, the family of four arrived in Winnipeg in October 2019.
“Before we came here Finn was a big Stephen Curry (NBA superstar) fan. He had the jersey and would play basketball every day. Then, because the weather here is so cold it was difficult for him to go play; he had to wear so many layers to cover himself, even before winter started,” his mother Marcel Batoon says.
Come December, with temperatures dipping even further and no chance of playing basketball outdoors, the family went to The Forks to try skating. While Marcel and her husband Gail stumbled, Finn and his sister Zoe took to the ice like ducks to water.
Finn was hooked. Skating had captured his imagination and he would try to get out on the ice at any opportunity. When he wasn’t asking to skate, he was indoors watching Jets games any chance he got, his mom says.
His Stephen Curry obsession has been firmly replaced by Mark Scheifele, the Jets’ alternate captain and leading goal scorer this season.
“Finn started watching the Jets, he started loving hockey and all of a sudden he decided he didn’t want to play basketball anymore, he wanted to be a hockey player.”–Marcel Batoon
“Finn started watching the Jets, he started loving hockey and all of a sudden he decided he didn’t want to play basketball anymore, he wanted to be a hockey player,” Batoon continues.
Because Finn’s interested in the sport had exploded, they bought him a hockey stick.
“I started skating and playing hockey when I was eight,” Finn says. “It was maybe a few months after skating that I played hockey. I was excited; I thought ‘I can finally play hockey.’”
His parents enrolled him in Canlan Sports Play to Learn — an introductory hockey program for those with a basic understanding of skating who want to learn to play hockey — where he quickly grasped the basics.
The family also took advantage of the city’s leisure programs, enrolling Finn in classes to hone his skills.
“It was hard as newcomers, it was a bit expensive,” Batoon says, “but he was so into it, he was watching YouTube videos and practising, every time there is a Jets game, he will make us all watch as a family, so we just keep supporting him.”
Finn plays almost every day. The family have created an outdoor rink in their backyard, so he can get on the ice as soon as he comes home from school.
“He was forcing us to take him to Tyndall Park to skate and it was just too cold at that time,” Batoon laughs. “So we learned to build a rink — it is 15 x 24 feet — and we can see him out of the window, and he can continue to skate out there by himself.”
He loves it so much he tends to the ice every day, shovelling snow off it if there’s been a storm and making sure the surface is as smooth as possible.
“I said to him the other day ‘Oh, it will be spring break soon’ and the first thing he said to me is ‘Oh no, my ice!’ He wasn’t even excited about the holidays; he is more upset that he won’t get to play anymore,” Batoon shares.
For Finn the benefits of playing are manifold. He never stops playing; in the summer when the ice has melted, he plays in his basement on roller skates. He says he loves hockey not just because it’s fun but because the sport has helped him improve his listening and communication skills.
“With every practice and game, I have developed more skills, like teamwork, respect, good sportsmanship and humility.
“Also, I have improved control of my moods and mental health. Hockey changed my life by making me be a better version of myself. It made me go out of my shell,” he says.
As hockey season winds down, Finn can still be found on the family’s backyard rink.
On a late February afternoon, he’s dressed in full Jets regalia — hockey socks, pants, jersey, tuque. The sun casts a shadow across the ice. As he shoots pucks at the net, he grins.
It’s the face of a changing sport.
AV Kitching is an arts and life writer at the Free Press.