Arnold Mburu, 19, is a Kenyan architecture student, as well as a hockey player. The first time he stepped onto an ice rink was in his native country, where hockey is not exactly a spectator sport.
Recently, Mburu traveled with 11 of his Kenya Ice Lions teammates to Toronto to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame and play an exhibition game against a team of firefighters. The hockey players also had the chance to meet and play with two of their Canadian peers, including the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby and an alternate captain and center of the Colorado Avalanche Nathan MacKinnon.
“I couldn’t say anything,” said Mburu. “I had no idea. We were all dressed up and because we were a few guys short, they told us they are going to get extra guys. But then Crosby walks in. And MacKinnon’s face is right behind them. And I can’t believe it.”
The trip was organized by Tim Hortons, Canada's largest restaurant chain, who wanted the Kenya Ice Lions to experience what it was like to be a Canadian hockey player.
“It was just really cool to see the reaction, how pumped they were,” said Crosby. “For us to experience that, we had fun too. That’s what it’s about. Everyone loves the game, and everyone has a different story as to why they love it or how they connect to the game.”
Kenya’s only hockey team had nobody to play. So, we brought them to Canada for a game. And, we surprised them with a couple of new teammates. https://t.co/gzMuiX4tbP— Tim Hortons (@TimHortons) October 15, 2018
Kenya’s sole ice rink in Kenya is found inside a hotel in Nairobi, next to the national park, which is home to giraffes, lions and zebras. The rink, which was mainly used for skating, was taken over several years ago by staff at the Canadian Embassy who started hosting hockey games.
“The first time I played hockey was in 2013,” said Ben Azagree, the founder of the Ice Lions. “That was my first time holding a hockey stick. It was not so good. I felt like I was walking on a soapy floor. But I never give up.”
The rink in Nairobi is rectangular and has no boards. Though they’ve slowly accumulated some real equipment, many of the players still wear soccer shin pads, sofa cushions or nothing at all as protection.
“Not all of us have full gear,” said Joseph Thuo, who started playing after being bullied for being overweight. “If you see a lot of us have cuts on our elbows and faces. Everybody has a story. I got hit from the puck twice in the kidney area. A good thing is they weren’t hard hockey shots.”
Right now, there are no goalies. As a stand-in, they have a two-foot toy penguin, which players must hit above the belly to score. Soon, however, with a $30,000 donation from Tim Hortons, they will start a youth hockey league with equipment provided by CCM.
“Everyone I told is like, Kenya? Like in Africa?” said MacKinnon. “I didn’t know what to expect. I was really surprised. But those guys were pretty good, I thought. They never had any instruction, but they could skate and move the puck. They definitely know the game.”
“He can fly,” Crosby said of Mburu, who managed to score in the exhibition game.
The score was unimportant though. Mburu and his teammates were hoping to change the concept of hockey as simply a Canadian sport. “First of all, I feel the ice is softer back home. And these are new skates,” said Mburu. “I think that’s why we all falling. But it’s a good experience. It’s a fun experience. We’re hoping the next generation achieves our goals. I feel like we didn’t embarrass ourselves.”
Tim Hortons is known for actively sponsoring community outreach programs like Free Skating, Free Swimming, Earn-a-Bike Program, Remembrance Day, Food Drives, the Smile Cookie program, Enactus, and well as a community clean-up project. The Tim Horton Children's Foundation, founded by Ron Joyce, sponsors thousands of disadvantaged children from Canada and the US to go to summer camps in Parry Sound, ON; Tatamagouche, NS; Kananaskis, AB; Quyon, QC; Campbellsville, KY; St. George, ON, and Whiteshell, MB.