Muslim ball hockey bridges gap for minority youth

Sticks are clashing, players are yelling, shots ring off the boards and the buzzer sounds. It looks and sounds like your typical hockey game at the local arena, except for one minor detail – no one is white.

Hockey, habitually known as Canada’s favourite sport, takes a spin on Saturdays as Muslim enthusiasts line the corridors at the Stephen Leacock Arena. Sixteen teams comprised entirely of Muslims embody the Madina Hockey League (MHL), a ball hockey league for those age 15 and up.

But these aren’t just pickup games of shinny, they’re every bit as intense as one would expect a hockey game to be.

“Because ball hockey is such a Canadian sport, the community in itself has been adapting more and more ever year,” said MHL co-commissioner Safi Habib on the growing interest from the Muslim populace.

“The more the Muslim community grows, the one reason they choose this particular sport is because it’s ingrained in our community and it’s Canada’s most popular sport.”

Habib, a second generation Canadian who grew up loving hockey, played throughout the late ’80s in the west end of Toronto. After meeting Waheed Mohammed in Scarborough, the two began networking with their friends. Eventually they found enough commitment to establish a serious league in 2008.

Youth in our community, they love the game of hockey

— Saleh Hafejee

The enthusiasm was enough to warrant a full list of standings, box scores and stats for all the eager athletes involved. Registration even gives you a profile page with your picture and performance through each game.

For Saleh Hafejee, MHL athlete and commissioner of his own league, ball hockey represents something deeper.

Many Muslim immigrants who come to Canada aren’t financially stable enough to support their children in a brand new sport, and an expensive one at that. But for the kids who grow up here, ball hockey acts as a bridge toward the endearing ice version.

“Youth in our community, they love the game of hockey,” Hafejee said with a smile.

“Over here we’re not exposed to cricket or field hockey as much. So kids grow close to hockey, and they love it. And right now, ball hockey is an avenue.”

Both Habib and Safejee attest to the difficulties of signing kids up in hockey leagues around the GTA. After buying all the necessary equipment, there’s still the daunting hurdle of registration fees.

“The ice hockey level is a level that’s almost unattainable for the Muslim community. When families first come here, they’re not flexible with their funds and with their time,” Habib said.

“Ice hockey, it’s a different sport. A lot of immigrants who come here, they can’t even afford to learn how to skate,” Hafejee added.

That’s when ball hockey leagues enter the scene. Immigrant parents who don’t have the time and/or money available for ice hockey can afford the relatively small fees, and location isn’t a problem either.

So while ice hockey may be out of reach for some, minorities still have the opportunity to play the sport they cherish, and competitively too. But for other, more lucky youth minorities, times are slowly changing.

“There is a shift that’s taking place in Toronto now,” Habib said.

“The next generation has been established, they are financially sound. The numbers aren’t as big as you’d hope, but second and third generation parents are signing their kids up more.”

It seems that immigrant families who have established themselves in Canada over generations are more prepared to take on the challenges of hockey, which hits close to home in Hafejee’s case.

“Because I grew up here, I learned to love the game and was able to support my son. I think with the later generations, we’re starting to see a lot more support from parents,” Hafejee said.

For the young Muslims of today, a career in hockey seems to be more promising. But for others who never had the opportunity, their love of the game can be satisfied through the MHL, and inspire them in their pursuit for the Madina Cup.