In October, we were introduced to the Ice Lions, Kenya's only ice hockey team. They play at what is believed to be the only ice rink in East Africa; the sheet at the Panari Hotel is typically used for recreational skating. It's a tad smaller than North American ice and enclosed by square corners.
Due to numbers (and lack of a goaltender), the Ice Lions had nobody to play but themselves. Over the summer, Tim Horton's flew the Ice Lions to Canada, outfitted them in fresh gear and organized a game with NHL superstars Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon. The video produced, "The Away Game," quickly went viral. In late October, Tim Horton's flew the Ice Lions' captain, Ben Azegere, back to Toronto to watch his first NHL game and reunite with Crosby. When asked what it meant to him at the time, Azegere said, "Anything is possible. And every dream is valid."
It was a heartwarming story underscoring the universal language of sport. It was also an acute reminder of hockey's cost prohibitions and aspirations for inclusivity.
The Ice Lions returned to Kenya, their normal jobs, their normal routines, but not their normal practices. Tim Colby, a Canadian living in Nairobi who serves as the Ice Lions' coach and adviser, noticed something different about the players after their North American exposure.
"The energy level they came back with -- they were flying, throwing their bodies around like crazy," Colby says. "I don't wear equipment when I play, and now I'm telling myself I might need to."
The regular players -- who were resourceful with limited gear, often taping pieces of couch cushions to themselves -- now have donated full CCM sets, perhaps giving them more security. But they still lack what so many established teams take for granted.
When pucks and sticks inevitably get to the face? That's a problem. A few weeks ago, a player sustained a cut; Colby was applying antibiotic cream when he realized he didn't have medical gloves to properly apply it. When you have players at varying levels, checking from behind is a concern. Colby might institute a full face-mask rule. He's also working to send players to a Red Cross training course, or at least some online video training.
There's no defibrillator at the rink, nor a trainer. The hotel has a doctor and nurse on call, but the team is still working out a protocol for how and when to call them. In Kenya, if you have a serious injury, you don't necessarily wait for an ambulance. You get in the car and go yourself. Not everyone is covered by insurance. What hospital do you go to? Who has a credit card? Now Colby and the other team leaders are figuring out procedures. They might require players to have insurance if they get on the ice, and if they can't afford it, they'll work out how to subsidize it.
In 2016, Azegere approached Colby and asked if he would help them establish a program and get them to the next level.
"I was sitting on the bench thinking, 'No f---ing way,'" Colby says. "I knew the amount of administration that it takes. It's not just getting the guys ready on the ice. I tried explaining, every team has more off-ice people than on-ice people."
But Colby, whose day job is with the United Nations Development Programme, couldn't resist. He saw how much hockey meant to these players; many traveled hours just to get to the rink or were spending their last dime to get there. So he said yes. He and a group of four or five meet after they play hockey and go over things. They're getting started and, thanks to the publicity boost with the Tim Horton's campaign, have a better foundation. But there's still much work to be done.
The Ice Lions host two main shinny games a week, plus four different training sessions, partially broken up by age. There's enough donated equipment now for the regular players, but not at the youth level yet. In all, there are about 30 Kenyan regulars who come.
Tim Horton's donated $30,000 Canadian dollars to the Ice Lions, and Alibaba, a Chinese conglomerate, also donated $30,000 (USD). But the program hasn't dipped into that money yet, partially because they can't access it.
Corporations can't just give individuals money, and the Ice Lions are dealing with the bureaucracy of setting up a federation. They hope to reach affiliate status by the end of 2019 (or maybe sometime in 2020), but in the meantime, they can't set up a bank account.
After the Tim Horton's campaign, there was a huge demand for jerseys. A man in Toronto volunteered to set up a Web page, print them and ship them, all for free. They looked sharp: the same kelly green with red-striped trimming that Crosby & Co. wore in the game, featuring a regal lion holding a hockey stick in the center. They weren't cheap ($169) but sold out immediately. So far, there have been about 300 sold, and the Ice Lions receive $100 for every sale.
That's given them the largest chunk of accessible cash, plus the GoFundMe, which Colby describes as their "financial lifeline." They've raised more than $7,000 on the page, although after an initial surge this fall, momentum has slowed.
"We haven't really spent any of our money yet," Colby says. "And we're about to have to."
The Ice Lions have a wishlist, and topping it is a new skate-sharpening machine (their current one has long been on the fritz). But the first tangible goal is to send a handful of Ice Lions out to Canada for coaching clinics to earn certification. While there, the Kenyans would spend every evening at a youth hockey practice, then study during the day and leave with a first-level coaching certificate. Colby lined up some people who can host as billets, and they have enough money to give per diems.
The big cost is airfare. Because most of the players work and have families, they're also trying to figure out their schedules before they can book. Ultimately, Colby wants to hand everything over to the Kenyans. As someone who specializes in intercultural relations, he understands that for long-term sustainability, the Kenyans "need to own" the coaching aspect.
"I understand that it will take a bit longer for them on the administrative and operational side, which I'm doing a lot of," Colby says. "But I want them to own the coaching for many reasons. In my business, you learn that different cultures have different ways of doing things. It's not like going from IBM to Ford and finding an organization of cultural differences compared to the West. It's much better if they take on all of the coaching, and they take care of everything they can, down to the theories of how to run a practice better to make it more efficient, the progression of drills, how to manage, et cetera. If they own that, it will be much better for them, and much more sustainable."
The buzz around the Ice Lions has been global. A Swiss photojournalist recently visited. A Finnish reporter swung by last week. A visiting tourist from somewhere in the midwestern United States brought three bags of equipment for the female players. A Mississauga (Canada) man who owns a trucking company offered warehouse space in Toronto in which the Ice Lions can store donated equipment before it is shipped over. In March, the Ice Lions will host Slava Fetisov and Mike Richter as part of their version of "The Last Game," an initiative to raise awareness on climate change.
Rick Lipsey, a former Sports Illustrated writer, coaches his son's 10-and-under squirt team in Manhattan. Looking to inspire his players, Lipsey arranged a Skype call between his players and the Ice Lions.
"They made it clear on the call how hard they work just to get to the rink, and they appreciate just the ability to play hockey," Lipsey says. "I think that really struck some of our players." So the North Park Hockey Squirt Green team wears Kenya Ice Lion stickers on their helmets, and the boys participate in a program where they solicit donations and pledges for the Ice Lions: small things, like a dollar for a goal, or 50 cents for a win. Every dollar counts.
As for the Ice Lions themselves, Colby has seen continued interest. They're seeing more regular practice attendance. After Azegere's last trip to Canada, he brought back goalie equipment. Ice Lions player George Gachara happily volunteered to give it a go in net; after his first few sessions, it turns out, he was a natural. Gachara barely flinched.
Colby usually skates with his family for an hour on Sundays starting at 11 a.m., and he noticed that some Ice Lions players are getting there an hour and a half earlier than their scheduled practice time to set up drills. Colby recently had a breakfast meeting with the GM, and again, even in darkness, saw some players sneaking in ice time.
The hotel has been a great partner, offering more free ice time and space in a storage facility that can be turned into a locker room. But Colby knows they can't abuse the relationship. The rink costs roughly $8,000 USD to operate per month. Some developers have expressed intrigue about building another rink in Nairobi -- it probably would have to be a multipurpose facility -- but as of now, there are no concrete plans.
By this time next year, Colby would like to have a youth team ready to go to a tournament, either in the U.S. or Canada; they've eyed the Bell Capital Cup in Ottawa as a great fit. Colby is also reaching out to players from South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia to see if they could arrange an African Cup. As of now, it would have to be a 3-on-3 tournament because the ice is so small.
CCM just came through with another 30 full sets of equipment, and the Ice Lions decided it would all go to the youth.
"The older guys, like Ben and them, know this is all about the next generation," Colby says. "Their time in the limelight was in Canada. We'll have some 3-on-3 tournaments here and there, but the big stuff, the international stuff, will all be for the younger guys."
This is just the start. The Ice Lions plan to be around for generations to come.