By George Da Silva – National Teams of Ice Hockey
Kenya is a country in East Africa with coastline on the Indian Ocean. It encompasses savannah, lakelands, the dramatic Great Rift Valley, mountain highlands and abundant wildlife such as lions, elephants and rhinos. From Nairobi, the capital, safaris visit the Maasai Mara reserve, known for its annual wildebeest migrations, and Amboseli National Park, offering views of Tanzania’s 5,895m Mt Kilimanjaro.
Kenya is one of the last places you would think of playing hockey, but the game is thriving in this country and we got a change to talk to Bruce Strachan one of the people who are running ice hockey in the country.
Could you tell us something about the history of hockey in Kenya?
Panari ice skating rink opened in 2005. As I understand it Andrew Gremely from Chicago was the one who got the ball rolling when he facilitated the very first game – a scrimmage between a group of development workers from Edmonton who were visiting Nairobi for one week and thought it would be fun to have an Equatorial ice hockey game.
When it became apparent that the rink had no hockey nets, by the way, Andrew solved the problem by welding nets together at his own expense. And we’re still using those nets to this day!
How did you end up playing ice hockey in Kenya?
You’re probably familiar with the saying, “build it and they will come.” Well ten years ago the Panari Hotel here in Nairobi built an ice skating rink on its second floor. And true to the word, I came to join what was back then, a handful of informal pioneering Sub-Saharan-African hockey players skating around in tee shirts and jeans, led by an intrepid expat from Chicago named Andrew Gremley.
How big is the ice rink?
Panari’s rink is 4572 square meters – roughly ¾ the IIHF regulation size
Is the ice rink at the Panari Sky Center open all year round?
You organize hockey games in Kenya, how many people show up and how many times do you play a week?
At this point we play once a week throughout the whole year, with attendance levels varying between ten and fifteen players per session.
Is there a Kenya ice hockey league right now if not are there any future plans to have one?
With our current array of gifted and committed players, such as David Damberger (captain), Benard Azegere (assistant captain), James Covey, Ali Kilanga and Myles Lutheran, to name a few, we’ve been taking steps towards transforming what, up until now, has been informal pick-up sessions into a formal
league competition. Our goal is to implement league play in 2016 with four initial teams that would represent the Nairobi, Kakamega, Malindi and Turkana regions of Kenya. From this pool of players we plan to field a national team for annual international competitions.
You wrote a open letter on how to increase Kenyan youth participation to the Panari Sky Center.
What are hoping to accomplish?
During the decade that I’ve been playing ice hockey in Africa I’ve always felt that as a Kenyan-based group it was unfortunate that we didn’t have greater local participation – especially given that there’s an astonishingly high level of talent, enthusiasm and heart for the game among-st the youth here –many of whom learned to skate on inline-skates.
The relatively prohibitive cost of ice time (approximately 10 USD per session) is the main factor for this disparity. And so I came up with a simple and straightforward plan to attain corporate and institutional support by which local youth participation could potentially increase.
To his great credit Toney Kitonga, the rink’s General Manager, as welcomed and received this proposal. And in fact, by the end of our very first meeting subsequent to the letter, sponsored two talented Kenyan youths effective immediately. A few hours later those two guys were out there on the ice scoring beautiful goals. And just like that, the future of indigenous ice hockey in Africa got a significant boost.
Have you had any seminaries with players or coaches to improve their skills?
As yet no. And I’ve got to say it’s pretty impressive how the youth have taught themselves the basics all on their own.
Toronto based Adrian Mizzi, known as the Traveling Goalie, has offered to come and lead a seminar, and we’d certainly welcome him – or any other player willing to donate their time.
Operation of the ice rink and playing ice hockey comes at a price. How do you try to keep costs down?
Apart from that one instance concerning my lobbying for local youth sponsorship I have no input regarding the rink’s admission policies.
Are there any future plans to have a Kenya Ice Hockey Association and would you like to be part of it?
Yes. One of our challenges is that as a team still made up primarily of expats many of our core players reside in Africa for less than two or three years. So when it comes to building a local hockey community with a future it is imperative that we take more steps to enfranchise local youth.
As mentioned earlier, there’s an extraordinary amount of budding hockey talent over here. And I’d very much like to see this potential developed and formalized into a sustainable league, and subsequently a competitive national team.
Of course, the drawback to that is our rink doesn’t yet conform to regulation standards means that our near-term prospects for engaging in competitive hockey are limited. We do however have high hopes that, with the anticipated success of our forthcoming three-on-three tournaments, a regulation size rink will be warranted in the not too distant future. “Build it and they will come,” right?
Have you had any contact with the IIHF about future membership?
Not as yet. We aren’t quite there yet. But as we do clearly see the benefits of membership I think we’ll be ready to take that step in the near term.
Other Africa nations like Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt are starting to have Ice hockey
programs and South Africa is well establish, would you like to be part of growing the game in Africa?
We’ve reached out to the other African clubs and likewise many of them have reached out to us.
Intercontinental relations are familial, friendly and positive. Currently I’m engaged in preliminary discussions with Adil El Farj who’s hosting Morocco’s All Africa tournament in 2016, where we hope to join Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and South Africa. Likewise we’re also working on increasing our own capacity so that we can host a Kenyan tournament in 2017. If all goes according to plan we’ll soon be inviting these, and other African nations, to participate.
By the way, although I’m presently pushing for an inter-African tournament, we’re also quite open to establishing relationships with other teams from around the globe. Personally, I’d really love to one day bring our Kenyan squad over to Ladakh, and play pond hockey in the Himalayas.
Enthusiasts from across North America have also been supportive. My sister’s community in Newmarket, Ontario for instance, has donated much-appreciated equipment. A Vancouver based memorabilia collector has been helpful in getting team jerseys produced at an affordable cost, and a wanderlust-full goaltender from Toronto has generously offered to come over and share his stick, skate and glove-saving expertise with our local youth.
What is the one unique thing about playing ice hockey in Kenya?
Well for starters, on clear days I’ve actually seen giraffes, zebras and gazelles prancing around outside the rink’s hotel window – that’s pretty unique no? But let’s face it, you probably wouldn’t be terribly interested in our team if we were based in Trois-Rivières or Thunder Bay. So there is something genuinely unique and intriguing just in and of itself about a group of die-hard hockey players shaving up Sub-Saharan ice. We’re sort of a contradiction in terms. Our closest ice hockey neighbor, by the way, is Cairo – that’s 2,000 miles away! And this gives you a sense of just how remote an outpost of the game we are.