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Sports This Week: Canadian teaching hockey in far off Kenya

And, it’s a pretty unique place to play hockey. Colby notes from the rink you can see a park where lions, elephants and rhinos roam.
Canadian coach Tim Colby details a play to members of the Kenya Ice Lions.

YORKTON - It is a very long way from Ottawa to Nairobi, Kenya – about 12,000 miles – but hockey has connected the two cities.

Yes, you read that correctly – hockey.

It turns out there is actually ice hockey – albeit modified a tad – being played in the African nation.

And Tim Colby, born in Montreal and from Ottawa, has spent the last several years coaching the Kenyan Ice Lions, the country’s top team.

The coaching opportunity – one which has Colby coaching basically every ice hockey player in Kenya -- was something he sort of stumbled into.

“I used to work for the Canadian International Development Agency (in 2010),” he explained to Yorkton This Week. “I knew there was hockey going on Wednesday nights, but the traffic was bad at night . . . I rarely went.”

But, over time Colby came to realize “more and more Kenyans were getting involved.”

When they learned Colby had coached minor hockey in Ottawa for a decade “they asked me to help out to take it to the next level.”

Colby admitted he did not jump at the offer recognizing the hurdles he’d have to overcome – accessing equipment, an eight-hour flight to a pro shop with skates – for one. He said often those who end up in Nairobi for work who play hockey get involved and then leave their gear behind when they head home to help local players.

Donations help too.

“A church group in Colorado sent us a skate sharpener,” said Colby.

But the Kenyan desire to play the game caught attention. Alibaba funded some Kenyan players to attend the 2018 winter Olympics in PyeongChang, and Tim Horton’s has brought players to Canada where they skated with Sydney Crosby and Nathan McKinnon.

The program became a social media hit, and Colby was finally fully involved.

“Now I’m all-in . . . Once you go down the rabbit hold you can’t get out,” he quipped.

Still at this point there is a single sheet of ice in Kenya, in a Nairobi hotel. It is about one-third the size of a typical hockey rink in Canada.

With the size of ice they have the Kenyans play a version of 3-on-3 hockey, with no icing, or offsides. Colby said it’s a very fast version of the game, one he thinks will eventually gain broader international acceptance.

In fact, Kenya is applying to join the International Ice Hockey Federation. Interesting, Colby noted they are not the first African country to do so, with South Africa already in. He added that country has several ice surfaces and an ice hockey league. It is so well-developed Kenya hopes to arrange for some of their players to travel south to hone their skills in South Africa.

The 3-on-3 game allows the game to be played at a more affordable cost.

“It’s very expensive to put in full size ice – especially the Olympic size – the cost keeping it frozen,” said Colby. He added it’s typically 30 degrees in Kenya.

Colby said to continue growing the game Kenya hopes to get IIHF approval to host an all African 3-on-3 ice hockey tournament in 2025, adding that would bring all the countries currently playing the game – Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia , and South Africa – involved.

At present the game in Kenya is split, with a senior team – the Ice Lions – and a youth program of ‘cubs’. Combined there are about 70 players, but most are from Kenya whereas programs in other African nations are largely players who learned the game somewhere else first, explained Colby.

While the numbers are small, Colby said they are attracting attention in Kenya too. It’s not unusual to have people watching practices “just slack-jawed and asking what is going on here.” Often they end up wanting to get their children involved.

And, it’s a pretty unique place to play hockey. Colby notes from the rink you can see a park where lions, elephants and rhinos roam.