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For ice hockey in Canada, reducing barriers to entry and increasing the visibility of refugees is integral

Copyrights: David Chan/Hockey Nova Scotia. Canadian ice hockey star Sidney Crosby, who wears #87, donated equipment for young refugees to use in his native Nova Scotia.

For ice hockey in Canada, reducing barriers to entry and increasing the visibility of refugees is integral

One of the most popular sports in Canada, ice hockey is witnessing increased conversations about race and diversity. As these conversations grow, a lot more work needs to be done to make refugees feel more welcome inside and outside the sport.

This article is a response to our call for articles on sport and refugees. If you would like to contribute, you can find out more here.

The symbolism of the gesture was perfect.

In 2019, Sidney Crosby, Canada’s most legendary active ice hockey star, donated 87 sets of hockey equipment to youngsters participating in programs operated by Hockey Nova Scotia. One of those programs was the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS) New Canadians Hockey Program, which includes many Syrian refugee children.

Crosby, who scored the gold medal-winning goal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, is a native of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, and wears the jersey number 87.

However, despite the Pittsburgh Penguins captain’s generosity, systemic changes are still needed to maximize the hockey-related benefits of social inclusion and social cohesion for refugees in Canada.

A major barrier to entry is the steep cost of hockey equipment, league fees, travel, and other hockey-related expenses. A 2019 survey by Scotiabank and FlipGive revealed that close to 60 percent of Canadian hockey parents spend more than $5,000 annually on their children’s hockey pursuits. Conversely, according to the Canadian Council for Refugees, most refugees start off in debt since they must reimburse the federal government for their travel to Canada and their medical exams prior to entering the country.

Also, the slogan, “If you can see it, you can be it,” embodies a challenge for refugees who want to play hockey. According to USA Today, the National Hockey League (NHL) is 97 percent white. Most NHLers originally hail from Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden, or the United States. Hockey’s relative homogeneity makes it harder for displaced young people, who already face cultural and linguistic obstacles, to achieve psychosocial well-being or leading status in the sport.

That said, hockey has witnessed a recent increase in awareness about systemic racism, which predates this summer’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In November 2019, ex-NHLer Akim Aliu, who was born in Nigeria and lived in Ukraine until he was seven, went public about racism he experienced from a former Canadian NHL coach. It sparked an industry-wide conversation.

In June, Aliu co-founded the Hockey Diversity Alliance with six other players of color. Its mandate is to “eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey,” which should benefit young refugees who love the game. In July, Hockey Canada announced that – for the first time – all national team players and other personnel would undergo mandatory diversity and inclusion training for the 2020-21 season.

The visibility of refugees in the hockey world received another boost this year with a widely circulated Sportsnet story about Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks. David Singh’s feature described how the 2019 NHL rookie of the year saw three close friends – members of a family of Armenian asylum-seekers – facing deportation from Sweden when Pettersson was 13.

This story came less than two months after TV broadcaster Don Cherry, who had expressed xenophobic views on Hockey Night in Canada since 1981, was fired for comments suggesting that Toronto-area immigrants did not respect the Canadian tradition of wearing red poppies to honour the war dead on Remembrance Day (November 11).

Hockey’s social climate is certainly changing, but there is still much work to be done to make refugees feel more comfortable and welcome. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) is increasing access to this sport in developing nations worldwide via the IIHF Equipment Supplier Program.

At last count, the program, which sends gear to non-traditional hockey countries, benefited 43 member national associations. IIHF.com stated: “With the recent announcement of five new members in Algeria, Colombia, Iran, Lebanon and Uzbekistan, that number could soon grow.”

With increased investment and visibility, refugees will have the opportunity to thrive in ice hockey. As a recent case in football shows, role models are important too.

Alphonso Davies, a Liberian refugee who learned to play football in Edmonton, won the UEFA Champions League title with Bayern Munich in August. The 19-year-old, previously with Vancouver Whitecaps FC, became the first Canadian national team player to achieve that feat.

Considering that ice hockey is Canada’s official national winter sport, it seems even more fitting that a refugee could someday become the next Sidney Crosby.

Lucas Aykroyd writes about ice hockey for the New York Times, ESPN.com, and GlobalSport Matters. Based in Vancouver, he has covered five Olympics and 20 IIHF World Championships for IIHF.com.

 

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Lucas Aykroyd

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Monday, September 7, 2020 - 11:39