Nfld. & Labrador

Syrian-Canadian boy excelling on ice, 1 year after community rallied to put him in hockey

Yamen Bai is usually smiling from ear to ear as he skates up and down the ice in hot pursuit of the puck. A year ago, he was a refugee child in St. John's who wanted to play hockey like his friends.

Yamen Bai, 11, can't stop smiling when he's on the ice in St. John's

Yamen Bai is on the ice this season after people rallied last year to get equipment for him to play hockey. The 11-year-old boy was born in Aleppo, Syria, and came to Canada in 2019. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

Long after his teammates left the ice on a line change, one boy continued to chase the puck with dogged determination and a beaming glow across his face.

"Yamen, Yamen!" his coach called out. "Change up!"

The boy, caught up in childlike glee over the game, turned his attention to the bench, heard his coach and skated off.

His smile stretched from ear to ear.

At the arena in St. John's, Yamen Bai is just like any other 11-year-old boy on the Avalon Celtics. He's eager, happy and completely in his element.

A year ago, he was the subject of a social media call-out — a Syrian refugee child who desperately wanted to play hockey with his friends, but didn't have any equipment.

The man who made the post was behind the opposing team's bench on this particular Sunday morning, leading his son's team in a friendly game against Bai's group.

'People were just amazing'

His name is Michael Doyle, and he's reluctant to take any credit for getting Bai on the ice, or anything the child has accomplished since.

Hockey dad and coach Michael Doyle helped organize an equipment drive and fundraising effort for Bai last winter. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

Doyle made the post after a neighbour came to him and said there was a little boy who needed help to play hockey. Doyle tweeted out the request and was immediately blown away.

"Within minutes — 20 minutes — gear started showing up at my door," he said.

They began raising money as well, and were able to put together enough cash and gear to register three kids in minor hockey.

"People were just amazing," Doyle said. "The community came together and it was like nothing I've ever experienced and nothing I ever expected to happen."

The story caught the attention of TSN broadcaster James Duthie, who penned a chapter of his newest book, Beauties, about Yamen Bai.

Bai said the best part of hockey is his team. He wanted to play hockey initially because he had a friend who played. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

Bai was born in Aleppo, Syria, but fled for Iraq when the country's civil war became too dangerous. His mother, two sisters and one brother eventually made the trip to Canada, landing in St. John's in March of 2019.

He's since found a home with the Avalon Celtics.

"I like [hockey] because I like my team," Bai said after the game. "My team is really good at hockey."

Future coach?

He's got a new reason to be proud. His Celtics squad emerged victorious in a Christmas tournament last week. Bai won his first gold medal, less than a year after picking up the sport.

"I have it in the bag. I can show you!" he said before running down a set of stairs to fetch it from his hockey bag.

TSN broadcaster James Duthie dedicated a chapter of his latest book to Bai and his story of joining hockey in St. John's. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

He's an affable kid with a contagious smile that spreads to other players, coaches and parents. Doyle said what makes his story so special is the positivity he brings to the rink.

"It's the joy he gets playing hockey. He comes to the rink with a smile and he leaves hockey with a smile."

Bai said he hasn't set any goals for himself as a player, other than to skate hard and score goals, but he has an idea of what he wants to do after minor hockey.

"I want to be coach," he said.

He shared his plans with Doyle last week, and the hockey dad couldn't have been happier to hear it.

"He's a lifer," Doyle said with a smile.

Bai will never forget the generosity people showed him when his family needed a little help.

"I want to say thank you to all the people who helped me to play hockey," Bai said. "I want to tell them thank you."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ryan Cooke is a journalist in St. John's.