In February 2013, I (FL Manager Scott Howe) had been living in East Africa for a few years when I heard rumors of ice hockey being played in Nairobi. I’d had miscommunications in my previous travels that resulted in disappointment, so I kept my expectations low. “Every Thursday night at the Panari Sky Centre” I was told. Much to my surprise, there was an ice rink…..but no players. I spent the evening teaching my two Kenyan friends how to scrimmage and then never really thought much more about it.
Fast forward to 2018, I was back in Canada when a friend sent me the now famous Tim Horton’s commercial (and documentary) featuring the Ice Lions. The rink at the Panari Sky Centre may have looked exactly the same as it did in 2013, but there was something very different about the hockey scene – it looked serious now! Naturally, I soon found myself flying to play in the inaugural Kenya Ice Hockey Experience which was organized by the Friendship League and the Ice Lions. In this case at least, the commercial didn’t lie. The Ice Lions played with intensity and were fiercely competitive in front of their passionate fans. During the day we saw junior programs that were impressive, and before leaving we participated in a scrimmage with the growing local inline and ball hockey community.
In my opinion, it’s not unrealistic to think that Africa as a whole could be a future hockey hot bed. Several other African countries, including Algeria, Morocco, South Africa and Egypt, have passionate ice hockey communities that are growing. Like Kenya, they will face many obstacles on their journey. Most notably:
- Equipment – with no local manufacturers, most African hockey teams need to import their gear which can be prohibitively expensive.
- Expertise – hockey is still fairly new in many countries, so there may not be a lot of experienced local coaches, trainers or administrators.
- Isolation – It’s difficult to get experience playing new teams when the nearest hockey program is a $1000 flight away.
- Facilities – with the exception of South Africa, there are no full-size ice rinks in Africa. Many programs face difficulty obtaining ice time due to costs or competition with other sports and/or public skates.
While a lot more support is needed, the international hockey community is increasingly providing equipment donations and ice hockey professionals are starting to visit the continent. The issue of isolation will hopefully become less relevant as more countries develop multi-team programs and other programs emerge. Unfortunately, the quality and quantity of ice time is a much more difficult problem to solve. An NHL size ice rink is very expensive to build and maintain – convincing governments and entrepreneurs to make the investment won’t be easy. The chosen path of most programs appears to be building local interest in hockey through ball and inline programs, with the hopes of building talent and convincing donors/entrepreneurs that an NHL size rink would be fully-booked and financially sustainable. This will likely succeed eventually if current growth trajectories are sustained and players remain committed, but it will take time.
If you want to support the growth of hockey in Africa, I recommend that you reach out to your favorite program and offer support – everyone has a potential role to play. For example, in 2019 a young American Ice Lions fans reached out to the Friendship League to see if we could facilitate a donation. He then went on to raise enough money from his classmates and community to buy the Ice Lions their first skate sharpener. Anyone who’s played before knows how much of a game-changer that is. Another great option is to visit our store at shop.friendshipleague.org to pick up some African hockey merchandise and help raise funds for local programs. If you want to take your support for African hockey to the next level, consider travelling with the Friendship League and providing much needed fresh competition for local players.