Syrian boys warm to Canada's 'beautiful' game, scoring goals — and fans — along the way

Three Syrian refugee boys who had never heard of hockey before arriving in Ottawa eight months ago laced up their skates recently for their first minor hockey game.

Ottawa couple, minor hockey association donate equipment, cover registration costs

Ismael Yasen, 9, Ahmad Al-Masri, 8 and Mohammed Al-Masri, 9, wait outside their Ottawa apartment building for Allan Martel to pick them up and take them to the rink. (Hillary Johnstone/CBC News)

"I go fast, and I scored a goal!"

Mohammed Al-Masri grins from ear to ear as he gives a play-by-play of the goal he scored during his first hockey game.

The nine-year-old arrived with his family from Syria eight months ago, and Mohammed and his two brothers started asking to play hockey almost immediately.

On Saturday morning, after several weeks of practices, the two younger brothers laced up their skates and played what they called a "beautiful" game.

"I give pass, he give me pass, I shoot the goal, and the goal catch it, and he shoot it, and I shoot it another time, I scored," said Mohammed, recounting every detail of his first goal.

Boys quickly 'fell in love' with hockey

The boys had never heard of hockey before arriving in Canada, but they became fascinated with it after meeting a 12-year-old Ottawa boy named Fahed and his parents, Christine Khouryati and Allan Martel, when the Al-Masri family arrived in February.

Moammar Al-Masri laces up Ahmad's skates before his son's first hockey game. (Hillary Johnstone/CBC News)

"The boys went to some of [Fahed's] games, and fell in love with him, and with hockey," said Allan Martel, who has been helping the Al-Masri family navigate their new life in Ottawa along with Khouryati, who speaks Arabic. 

"Over the summer, we outfitted the kids with equipment … we were able to cover the cost for registration for the kids. And so here they are, and they're having a great time playing hockey," he said.

Martel said the East Ottawa Minor Hockey Association's Reach Out program has made it possible for the boys to play by contacting different financial aid agencies that help disadvantaged kids play sports.

Mohammed and his younger brother Ahmad, 8, are playing on the novice-level team, along with their friend Ismael Yasen, 9, who also came to Ottawa with his family from Syria. The older Al-Masri brother, Hamada, 12 is playing on a different team.

New hockey dads also want to play

Neither family owns a vehicle, so Martel picked up the boys and their fathers on Saturday morning to transport them to the rink.

Moammar Al-Masri and Easen Amam Yasen sat in the stands with the other hockey parents during the game, cheering along, and often pulling out their cell phones to take pictures of their boys in action. 

Neither father speaks much English, but with the help of a volunteer translator they said they're "proud" of their boys, and wish they could "go back to their childhood to play this game."
Easen Amam Yasen watches from the stands as his son Ismael, 9, plays his first hockey game. (Hillary Johnstone/CBC News)

"The kids are receiving a lot of care and attention … They're very happy that someone is taking care of them, and helping them excel in the game," said translator, Ali Al-Dulaimi of the group Refugee 613.

The boys' coach said she's impressed with how quickly they picked up the game and learned to skate, despite the language barrier.

Coach, parents pitch in 

"I think because it's a visual thing … they look at the other kids, they look what they're doing, I always show the kids what I want, so because there's a lot of visual aspect to it, I think that's why they're catching on," said Karina Potvin, head coach of the Ottawa East Coyotes novice squad.

Potvin said other parents from the team have now stepped forward to offer to drive the boys to and from the rink.
Allan Martel and his partner Christine Khouryati have helped the Al-Masri family since they arrived in Ottawa from Syria eight months ago. (Hillary Johnstone/CBC News)

"I think everyone wants to pitch in. Everyone wants to make it happen. And everyone realizes, you know, there are obstacles. They don't have a car, there's a language barrier as well, so everyone just wants to make it happen for these kids," said Potvin.

"That's what it's all about," said Martel.

"You're giving them the opportunity to do something they would never have the chance to do otherwise. Hockey is becoming a very elitist sport. It's very expensive, and the barriers to entry for low income families are very high," he said.

'Because he love me'

The boys may not have a full English vocabulary quite yet, but they know the right words to make your heart melt.

Standing outside the dressing room after their first game, the boys were asked about all the people who have helped them play hockey, and why they think those people want them to play.

There was a pause, and then Mohammed piped up, "because he love me."