Crosby joins Team Kenya
by Martin Merk|16 OCT 2018
Kenya Ice Lions captain Benard Azegere gets ready for his first game against another team in Toronto.
photo: CNW Group / Tim Hortons
Imagine you play hockey in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. Ice Hockey, to be precise. While this has become possible a few years ago, you don’t have many other teams around to play.

The Solar Ice Rink opened in 2005 in the Panari Sky Centre, a complex that also includes a hotel and a mall about halfway from the city centre to the airport, as East and Central Africa’s first ice rink. Located just 100 metres away from lions, zebras, giraffes and many other animals located just over the nearby fence of the Nairobi National Park, the rectangular ice sheet measures 32 on 12 metres, just enough for Nairobi’s ice hockey fans to play 3-on-3.

During the last couple of years the action on ice in Nairobi hasn’t been limited to skating. At the rink ice hockey lessons and an ice hockey membership with a number of sessions have been offered. The first ice hockey team was born, the Kenya Ice Lions comprised of players with previous experience from other hockey sports such as inline hockey. Just over three years ago we published this video made by, a British-based website with links to Kenya:
Ice Hockey in Kenya
Ice and inline hockey in Nairobi Kenya. Hockeytutorial take a trip to Panari Hotel and Aga Khan walk to discover the love of hockey in Kenya. One thing is apparent, no matter where you are from, what equipment you have, your race, skill, gender or age.
KEN 19 JAN 2018
One year later the website Mashable went to the ice rink 90 miles away from the equator to meet the players and write about the games they play on Wednesday nights. A lot is improvised but the sport has attracted more Kenyans and not just expats. “A lot of people, a lot of Africans, they think it’s a white man’s sport. But they come to see it, to have fun, and then they get the interest,” ice hockey player and instructor Ben Azegere was quoted in the story. “It’s thrilling. Most of the guys, they come here for the thrill.”
The next step would be to play other teams. The problem: The closest full-size ice rinks on the continent are located in South Africa, the only African country where ice hockey has been played for several decades. That’s about 2,900 kilometres (1,800 miles) south or a four-hour flight. A car ride to the area of Johannesburg and Pretoria via Zambia and Zimbabwe would take about 55 hours. The next closest alternatives would be ice rinks in the Middle East, such as Abu Dhabi, 3,400 kilometres (2,100 miles) away or a five-hour flight. Smaller ice rinks are also located a bit further away in North Africa in countries such as Morocco and Egypt. But with a median monthly salary of below $900 in the city, a flight to such destinations would cost an average Nairobian almost half a monthly salary.

Luckily for the small but growing ice hockey family in Kenya the reports on them won the hearts of hockey fans in classic ice hockey countries. And it inspired not only fans liking our social media posts. Tim Hortons, a Canadian coffee chain founded and named after the late NHL player which is an official partner of Hockey Canada, invited 12 players from the Kenya Ice Lions to Toronto, Canada.

They got new skates, sticks, gear and jerseys from CCM and even two new teammates to finally play against an opponent. Little did they expect that those players turned out to be some of the best Canada has to offer: Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon. “Is it you?” Kenyan player Arnold Mburu asked in disbelief when the two entered the dressing room in the very same jerseys. Tim Hortons made a video headlined “The Away Game” about the trip:
The Away Game for the Kenya Ice Lions
There’s only one hockey team in all of Kenya. They had nobody to play. So, we brought them to Canada for an unforgettable game.
KEN 15 OCT 2018
“I was honoured to be able to join the Ice Lions as they played their first game against another team,” said Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby in a press release. “One of the things I love about hockey is how it’s able to reach so many people from so many countries around the world and bring them together.”

“While we played alongside the Ice Lions for their first game, we know it won’t be their last,” said Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon. “The team’s genuine passion and excitement for hockey is contagious – they were amazing teammates and it was great to play with them.”

The team visited the Hockey Hall of Fame and with their celebrity boost played a team of local firefighters. For the first time they played an opponent rather than against themselves.

“It is a dream to not only have the chance to play in Canada, but to play – for the first time – in full gear alongside two of the greatest players of the game,” Ice Lions captain Benard Azegere said. “When we first started playing in Kenya, we didn’t even have full equipment, but now not only do we have that, we can say we’ve played a real game with some All-Star teammates.”

Kenya is a country of almost 50 million people with about seven million people living in and around Nairobi, the capital and largest city of the country. Kenya is better known for its great runners, or for football.

“I first didn’t know what ice hockey was. They are sliding, not running. It was my dream to one day move like them,” Azegere said and added about his experience with the Canadian NHL stars: “Sidney, my favourite player coming through the door in our jersey. I feel like in heaven.”

Back in Kenya, Azegere and his teammates hope to find more players also thanks to the equipment support and a donation from Tim Hortons. Recently the ice hockey family in Nairobi has grown with the first female players as it can be read in this story from ESPN.
Five women are now also part of the Nairobi Ice Lions that get ice time twice a week: Tasha Otieno, Carroll Joseph, Alexcy Wambui, Faith Wambui and Faith Sihoho.

"I think one day you will see Kenyan women playing hockey at the Olympics," Carroll Joseph told ESPN. "When we were little, there were no women playing ice hockey in Kenya that we could look up to. We want to be those women for the next generation of Kenyan girls."

Kenya’s ice hockey pioneers now aim at founding the Kenyan Ice Hockey Federation, get recognition in their country and one day formally join the international ice hockey family. With their joy and enthusiasm they have already won many hearts.