October 19, 2018 / 10:00 AM / a month ago

FEATURE-Ice hockey-Kenya's lone hockey team have Olympic-sized dreams

TORONTO, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Kenya may be known more for producing the world’s greatest long distance runners than winter athletes, but the country’s only ice hockey team are hoping a recent trip to Canada will help change that narrative.

Earlier this week the Kenya Ice Lions, who have nobody to play against back home, were featured in a heartwarming video in which Canadian coffee-and-donut chain Tim Hortons brought them to Toronto in mid-August to play their first game.

The video’s highlight came when National Hockey League stars Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon reduced the unsuspecting Ice Lions to tears as they walked into a locker room wearing the team’s green uniforms to join them for their game.

“You know, for us this is all like a dream come true,” Ice Lions captain and founder Benard Azegere told Reuters during a visit to Toronto this week.

The Ice Lions, based in a country too near the equator to have a real winter, are a sort of modern-day version of the Jamaica bobsleigh team that went to the 1988 Olympics and whose bizarre story inspired the making of the film “Cool Runnings”.

Azegere said the Ice Lions learned to play the game on a rink inside a Nairobi hotel with the help of online tutorials and a friendly group at the city’s High Commission of Canada who donated sticks and random pieces of equipment to the team.

“We didn’t have goalie equipment and nobody can take that risk to be a goalie without the proper gear,” said Azegere. “So what we used to do was we had a rubber penguin and we used to put it at the centre of the goal and to score you had to hit the penguin above the belly.”

Azegere said there are only 30 hockey players in Kenya, a country with a population of nearly 50 million, a far cry from Canada where, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation, there are 637,000 registered players.

The 33-year-old Kenyan’s first exposure to the fast-paced and physical sport was in 2010 when he saw a game on TV from that year’s Vancouver Olympics, and he was immediately struck by the smooth way the players were able to move around the ice.

‘I KEPT ON FALLING’

That prompted Azegere to test his ability on the rink inside the Panari Sky Center Hotel, where the Ice Lions now practice twice a week.

“It wasn’t as pleasant as I thought it would be,” Azegere said. “It was like walking on a tile floor full of soapy water and I kept on falling but I was determined to do it.

“It was painful but I managed.”

The 1,400-square-metre ice surface is meant for leisure skating and lacks the rounded corners of traditional hockey rinks but it is home for the Ice Lions, who shared videos of their practices on social media in a bid to recruit players.

When the Tim Hortons chain learned about the Ice Lions they decided to fly them to Toronto where they were given personalized jerseys, new hockey equipment and a chance to play against a recreational team made up of firefighters.

Azegere said the trip to Canada, where hockey is a national obsession, has given the team plenty of exposure in Kenya where requests are pouring in from people who want to join them.

While the Ice Lions still have no other teams to compete against at home, Azegere is hopeful more ice surfaces will be built in Kenya so that one day a proper league can be formed.

Only two Kenyan athletes have ever competed at the Winter Olympics but Azegere hopes to one day watch a hockey team from his country competing against the world’s best players.

“Our intention right now... is not only to feature in a future Winter Olympics but we have a dream of making ice hockey big in Kenya,” said Azegere.

“We are known in the (sporting) world for other reasons, mainly athletics and rugby, but we are trying to go an extra mile and fly our Kenyan flag in a different way.” (Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; editing by Ken Ferris)

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