This Kenyan Ice hockey team is trying to make a name for themselves in a winter Olympics sport that's had rare African participation.
Nairobi— On a Wednesday night, in an indoor ice rink, hockey players on opposing teams dart at high speeds across the length of the ice, whacking away at the hockey puck with their sticks or lifting it and sending it flying towards the goals positioned on either side. Rapid starts, stops, turns, tumbles, stomping and body checking characterize the exhilarating one-hour practice session.
This scenario is almost similar to any that one would see at any ice hockey rink across many parts of Europe or North America where the sport is widely popular. But in Kenya, where this particular practice is taking place, ice hockey is quite an oddity and would likely prompt an immediate channel change if a game came on television.
An African team competing in Ice Hockey is practically unheard of. This Kenyan team hopes to eventually change thatIn sharp contrast, almost every TV screen in a sports bar in the East African nation, is currently tuned to the events of the Rio Summer Olympics and especially to track and field where Kenyan runners normally dominate the middle and long distance races. Since the athletics’ part of the games began, the daily newspapers have been splashed by front-page pictures of medaled Kenyan athletes, proudly draped in the national flag.
Holding onto these vibrant images, the little-known, fairly new Kenya ice hockey team hope to bring the same glory to their country at the Winter Olympics.
The team practicing at the only ice rink found in East Africa
“We have the talent and so I have no doubt that one day we’ll be there (Winter Olympics) to represent our country,” says Daniel Maundu, one of the team’s defense-position players.
Like all his team mates, Daniel had never seen that much ice before until he became a staff member at the upmarket Panari hotel, in the country’s capital city, where the only ice rink in East and Central Africa is found.
“When I started working at the hotel, I would come to the rink to watch kids skating and I became very interested,” says Daniel.
“I thought to myself, I can learn to do this,” he adds.
It took him six months to learn how to skate and then another two years to learn ice hockey and join the group.
It took player, Daniel Maundu, 6 months to learn to skate
The team’s growth in skill and knowledge of the game is both self-taught and from the invaluable input of expatriates living in Kenya that played the game in America or Europe.
Another player, Joseph Nganga, is a left-handed striker who made the transition from roller skating hockey to ice hockey about two years ago. Every week he travels more than two hours from the outskirts of the city for the one-hour practice session. Though a huge inconvenience, he says he would not miss them for the world.
“If I don't make it for practice, it would mean waiting a whole week for the next one,” he laments.
“I love this game, I love the feel of the stick,” he adds almost dreamily.
Joseph Nganga actually learned to roller skate then transition to ice skates two years agoJoseph’s passion and dedication is a reflection of the team’s determination to play and win at the international stage. But the team’s coach Benard Azegere - who also doubles up as an ice skating instructor at the hotel – is realistic of the fact that not just winning an Olympic gold but even qualifying for the Winter Olympics, anytime soon, is a far fetched dream.
Coach Bernard Azegere knows his team has a long way to go, but their dreams are not impossible
“We have a long way to go, we need more practice, we need more things,” says Bernard.
Beginning with the most basic of resources, such as protective gear and equipment. For instance, instead of a goalkeeper in both goals, the team has an inflatable rubber penguin to ‘stand guard’ at one of the goals. This is because the team cannot afford the expensive gear that a goalkeeper needs to protect himself from a hockey puck coming at him at speeds of more than 100 km/h. The goalkeeper, a non-Kenyan, at the other goal, played in amateur ice hockey in Europe and came to Kenya with his own equipment. Everything else that the team members currently use belongs to the hotel and is also hired out to skating enthusiasts who pay the $8 fee for a one-hour use of the rink.
A lot of the protective gear is extremely expensive, so the team has to rent equipment from the hotel
“We go by what we can,” says Bernard
"At least we have the key protective ones, which are helmets and the shin guards,” he reasons.
Though the list of challenges is long, the team is not at all short on enthusiasm.
“We have a bright future ahead and even if the current team doesn't make it to the Winter Olympics or something, we have a talented junior team that we are training,” says Bernard
“They will eventually take us there,” he concludes with a smile.