'Hockey is Canada': Charity sends 10 teens to their first Leafs game
'We don’t often think about who’s being left out of the sport,' says organizer of Hockey 4 Youth
Javeria Mehmood, 18, expected her first time putting on a pair of skates to be her last.
"The first time I went [on the ice], I thought 'I know nothing, I'm probably going to quit on the first day,"' she told Eli Glasner on CBC's Here and Now Thursday.
Having grown up in Pakistan, she never had the chance to skate until she moved to Canada last year.
But through the Toronto-based group Hockey 4 Youth, a charitable organization that provides new Canadians and low-income youth the opportunity to play hockey for free, Mehmood's been honing her skills on the ice.
"It feels really awkward when you're born and raised in a separate country, and you're trying to be more comfortable but you don't know how, and then suddenly someone comes and they are like, 'We are with you, we are going to help you,"' she said.
Mehmood was one of 10 of the program's participants who experienced their first live game in the city Thursday, where they watched the Toronto Maple Leafs face Minnesota Wild at the Scotiabank arena, all from a donated private box.
All 10 teens are new to Canada, having moved here in the past year from Pakistan, Jamaica, Turkey, Somalia, Syria and Zanzibar.
Although the Leafs lost 4-3, Thursday marked the Leafs' "Next Generation Game," focused on celebrating young fans. Kids from various programs across the city came out to cheer on Toronto's home team.
"They were cheering so loud, they were so into it," said Moezine Hasham, executive director and founder of Hockey 4 Youth. "Really, this is an opportunity for these newcomer youth to experience something that is so Canadian."
Only 1% of new Canadians get to play
Hasham said 71 per cent of new Canadians have interest in playing the sport, but only about one per cent gets to try.
"Hockey is Canada, it's engrained in our culture," Hasham said. "And we don't often think about who's being left out of the sport."
On average, Hasham said playing a season of the sport costs roughly $3,700, a figure many families can't afford.
But with the help of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) and other individual and corporate donors, teens 14 to 18 get the chance to participate in Hasham's 18-week program.
And at the beginning of April, participants from all five Toronto schools involved in the program will play in their first-ever tournament.
"They learn self-esteem, they learn respect, they learn about discipline. But at the same time, they're developing friendships with youth from other countries," Hasham said.
'This is something that is made for me'
Mehmood said she has fallen in love with the sport, and hopes to continue playing throughout university.
"This is something that is made for me," she said. "I'm not leaving it."
But Hasham says even if participants decide they won't ever go further with hockey, the organization's main focus is integrating teens into a community.
"Young people, like Javeria, who want to continue playing, that is fantastic. But she's also going to go on to do greater things, she's going to use hockey as that foundational tool," Hasham said.
With files from Greg Ross and Here and Now