From Ottawa to Nairobi: How a Canadian coach helped Kenyan hockey team roar

Ottawa native Tim Colby moved to Kenya in 2010. Nowadays, he coaches the Kenya Ice Lions, the hockey team which made headlines by playing with NHL stars Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon as part of a Tim Hortons commercial.

Tim Colby helped organize game with Crosby, MacKinnon

Tim Colby, centre, has been a driving force behind the growth of ice hockey in Nairobi, Kenya. Colby, 55, moved to Nairobi from Ottawa in 2010. (Rob Opiyo/Kenya Ice Lions)

Blood dripped onto the ice.

The puck had struck the teenage Kenyan girl in the face. She wasn't wearing any protective headgear due to a lack of available equipment.  

Ottawa native Tim Colby went to examine the wound. He saw the cut wasn't deep enough to require stitches.

"I told her, 'That's hockey, suck it up. Keep playing.'"

She was stunned, but after the shock subsided, she did what Kenya's pre-eminent hockey authority told her to do. She kept playing.

Toughness is one of the many hockey lessons Colby has tried to impart during his time in Nairobi.    

"This is not soccer or football where you roll around on the ground and complain. This is hockey," he said.

A Canadian in Kenya

The 55-year-old expat has entrenched himself within Nairobi's hockey community.

He moved to Kenya from Ottawa in 2010 to work for the Canadian International Development Agency. He joined the United Nations Development Programme in 2014, where he now works as a devolutions advisor.

A hockey nut, Colby didn't play much when he first arrived. It could take him up to two hours to get from his home to the Panari Hotel, the home of Kenya's only ice rink.

But as time went on and traffic got a bit less congested, he started playing more.

In 2016 he was approached by Benard Azegere, the current team captain of the Kenya Ice Lions, to see if he'd be willing to coach.

Initially, Colby was reluctant. He'd coached minor hockey for 10 years in Canada, and it consumed his life. But he relented after taking note of just how much the game meant to the Kenyan players.     

"Some of these kids are spending their last dime to get out of here, so when they're on the ice, they're serious." 

Nowadays, the Kenya Ice Lions play twice per week. The majority of players are Kenyan, with a sprinkling of Canadians, Americans, and Europeans.

There is only one goalie on the team.

"We have yet to have a game with two goalies," said Colby. "That will be our next little step."

On the other end of the rink stands a shooter tooter, a nylon tarp that covers the net but allows space for four open corners and a five-hole for players to shoot for. 

Over the last few years, Colby has worked hard to procure more equipment for the team.

Colby has done everything he can to help secure equipment for the Ice Lions. (Kenya Ice Hockey League/Facebook)

Whenever he's in Canada, he'll fill up his car with used equipment with the help of his hockey connections.

"My brother coached hockey for years. All my nieces and nephew played. I ask around, and all of a sudden I have a garage full of equipment." 

Not another Cool Runnings

In July, Colby met with Zulu Alpha Kilo, the Toronto agency behind an upcoming documentary about the Kenya Ice Lions.

He didn't want the whole thing to be a publicity stunt.

"Yes, it's Africans on ice. But it's much more than that. These guys are serious. I want to make sure you're not selling this as a Jamaican bobsled story because we need money for ice time," he told them. "We want to take it seriously."    

Colby signed a non-disclosure agreement with the agency. Back in Nairobi, he couldn't tell the players any details about their impending trip.

When the documentary was released, chronicling the Ice Lions' trip to Toronto where they got to play with Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon, Colby was extremely emotional. The meeting made headlines as part of a Tim Hortons commercial.

"It blew me away. I cried," said Colby. "I still tear up when I watch it."

It reminded him just how much hockey means to the Ice Lions.

"Some of the Canadians I play with here, we show up at the rink on a Saturday morning. We kind of get out there and play half-ass sometimes, because we take it for granted."

"And then you watch the Ice Lions in that locker room and on the ice, and it's the time of their lives. They're crying, some of them. They're so emotional, touching Sid's face."  

The team returned to Nairobi with full gear courtesy of CCM Hockey. With proper equipment, the game took a more physical turn.

"They started throwing the bodies around, and now it's me that's coming out bruised."

Colby has the undivided attention of members of the Ice Lions as he imparts his hockey expertise. (Rob Opiyo/Kenya Ice Lions)

More importantly, the Kenyans are getting better.

In October, the teams were being put together with foreign players on the same team as locals.

The Kenyans didn't want this.

"We play against the Mzungus," they said. Mzungu is a Bantu language term used to refer to people of European descent.

Colby was skeptical. The Mzungu team had two Canadians that used to play junior hockey, a Slovak, and Colby.

"We were like 'Umm, you sure?'"   

The Kenyans were sure. They won.

"They were in way better shape," said Colby. They want to do that a lot now. They often want to play against the foreigners. They're not afraid. They're not like, 'We're going to get beat'. They want to play against us and they're really competing well."

A family affair

In addition to his twice-per-week commitment to the Ice Lions, skating is a family affair for Colby.

On Sunday mornings, he brings his wife, Charity, and his 10-year-old daughter, Sienna, to the rink with a mix of Canadian, European and Kenyan friends.                             

Charity, a Canadian citizen born in Kenya, skated occasionally in Canada, but became competent in Kenya.

Last month, Colby started a GoFundMe campaign to help grow Kenyan ice hockey. He's hoping to create a solid infrastructure to give the players regular access to equipment.

He's also hoping to raise money to bring Kenyan coaches to Canada. Ideally, they would billet with house league coaches in Canada.

"I want them to understand, they have to lead. They have to own this. It's about them. It's not about me."

Going forward, he's planning to help get a Kenyan ice sport federation approved by the national government, which would allow them to get affiliate status with the International Ice Hockey Federation.

He wants the Ice Lions to host a 3-on-3 tournament against other African teams.

Most importantly, he doesn't want to see the Kenyans give it up.

"When I'm really old and much greyer, I'd like to be able to go to the rink and see these guys still playing. Not see it die."


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