Andrew Doyle, a coach with Hockey Nova Scotia’s New to Canada Hockey Program, says that when the Syrian children first arrived at the rink six weeks ago, they were “very scared.”
The boys and girls, aged five to 13, clung to the boards faced with a game they barely knew.
“A lot of them, it was their first time in a rink ever,” he said.
Now, as the inaugural program wrapped up Saturday, Doyle said their skill level and their confidence has improved greatly.
“Now they’re coming right into the dressing room, getting their own gear on, they’re outside waiting for the Zamboni to get off the ice,” he said. “They’re very eager, so it’s great.”
About 30 children took part in the free program at the Centennial Arena in Fairview’s Halifax neighbourhood. It’s part of Hockey Nova Scotia’s broader goal of making the game more reflective of the province’s population, said Darren Cossar, the organization’s executive director.
“This is an introduction to show them all the benefits and the great aspects of hockey,” Cossar said.
He said hockey can be intimidating because of its equipment, structure and cost, so they worked with Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia to make the program as accessible as possible.
For equipment, the players are using the bare necessities: helmet, skates, neck guard, gloves, sticks. And the hockey itself is a basic introduction to the game.
Communication is helped by translators on the ice and the bench.
“You have to make sure that you really have a lot of eye contact and a lot of demonstration with the kids,” Cossar said. “But at the end of the day it’s amazing. They can pick things up so quick and barriers are broke down so quick when they’re having fun and doing something that they see other kids doing.”
The program’s funding is a legacy of the Hockey Canada Foundation Gala and Golf event that was held in Halifax in 2016.
If parents and children want to continue playing, Hockey Nova Scotia will work with them to get the rest of the gear and the funding they’ll need to participate.
Whatever the kids decide, Cossar said the final product was a lot of happy children and parents.
“You see a lot of smiles, both on the ice and in the stands,” he said. “It’s both kids that never thought that they would skate or have the opportunity to participate in hockey are getting that experience, and parents that never thought they’d see their children … playing in Canada’s national game.”