'Fall and get back up': Girls in Montreal learn hockey basics in free, 10-week inclusion program
28 elementary school students, all girls, get chance to learn and play hockey for free
Nishika Venkatachalam has been ice skating for years but, up until recently, the 11-year-old had never played hockey.
"It's pretty expensive to buy all the equipment," she said.
Nishika is equipped with a stick, knee pads, shoulder pads and a helmet. She's ready and eager to give hockey a shot.
She is one of nearly 30 students at Cedarcrest Elementary School in Montreal's Saint-Laurent borough — all of them girls — that are getting the chance to learn and play hockey, free of charge, as part of a Canada-wide initiative to remove barriers to the sport.
"I'm happy that I can be one of the kids that get a chance to play hockey for free and get all the equipment, have fun on the ice, skate and learn how to use a stick," Nishika said.
The 10-week program is run by Hockey 4 Youth, which is overseen by the National Hockey League's inclusion coalition.
According to its website, Hockey 4 Youth has organized programs for schools in Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa and is launching one in Edmonton some time this year.
"There's so many barriers that exist to playing the sport, whether it be the cost of equipment or culture or gender barriers," said Moezine Hasham, the executive director and founder of the Hockey 4 Youth Foundation, during an one-ice session Friday at Raymond-Bourque Arena.
"We want them to learn how to skate. We want to them to learn how to fall and get back up because that's the greatest life lesson."
Zayana Callender had no hockey experience heading into the program. Now, she's eager to learn more even if she's starting with the basics.
"I'm learning how to skate and turn," said Zayana, a 10-year-old who is taking part in the program alongside her sister.
"When you skate, [you] kind of feel free."
Former NHLer Georges Laraque, who took part in Friday's on-ice session, says many immigrants are often unable to afford enrolling their children in hockey programs.
"All the other sports, you need a pair of shoes and you can play," he said.
Laraque is hoping that by learning how to skate and play the sport, the girls taking part in the program will spread the word.
"Some of these girls will become teachers one day that will teach other girls how to skate," Laraque said. "It's a chain. To be part of that chain is just awesome."
With files from Sharon Yonan Renold
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