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African Ice Hockey Players Get Valuable In-Game Experience in Japan

A group of African ice hockey players visited Japan as part of a tour arranged by the Friendship League, which aims to help develop the sport around the world.

A list of popular sports in Africa would inevitably include track and field, rugby, soccer and cricket. Ice hockey wouldn’t even break the top 10, but a dedicated group of players is doing their part to grow the sport on the continent.

Six of those players recently toured Japan to hone their skills and pick up some valuable in-game experience, something that is hard to come by back home.

The visiting players were from Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa and Kenya.

The tour was organized by the Friendship League with a big assist from the Tokyo Canadians, a long established group of ex-pats in Japan who have brought their love of the game with them to the Japanese capital.

Established in 2016, the Friendship League is a tourism organization that harnesses the power of sport to foster cross-cultural engagement.

"Our goal is to develop hockey in some of the non-traditional hockey countries around the world," said Canadian Scott Howe, the group's representative on the Japan trip.

"Overall, Africa is quite dedicated to hockey but the main barrier, other than the lack of facilities, is the lack of competition."

"For African players to get any type of in-game experience they need an organization like ours," added Howe, no relation to NHL legend Gordie Howe.

The Friendship League has staged hockey events around the world in places as far-flung as Ecuador, Egypt and North Korea.

Now Japan can be added to that list.

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Participants in the Friendship League's hockey tour of Japan pose for a photo. (Jim Armstrong)

A Rewarding Experience for Six African Hockey Players

The six African players recently took part in the tour of Japan that featured a pair of games at DyDo Drinco Ice Arena (formerly known as Higashi-Fushimi Ice Arena) on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Among the six were two players from Kenya ― Benjamin Mburu and Faith Sihoho. The others were Harond Litim from Algeria, Mahmoud Ghonaim from Egypt, Charles Balha from Morocco and Nadja Giessen-Hood from South Africa.

For Sihoho, it was her first time out of Africa. 

Mburu gained some notoriety several years ago when he visited Canada in 2018 as part of the Kenyan national team that met and skated with NHL legend Sidney Crosby.

"Hockey is such a fun game," said Mburu, who started playing the sport in 2015. "It's a mental game first of all, and it's a physical game as well and when you step on the ice it's like the world freezes."

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Kenyan ice hockey player Benjamin Mburu displays his jersey outside of DyDo Drinco Ice Arena. (Jim Armstrong)

Field Hockey, Then Ice Hockey

Like many players in Africa, Mburu started out playing field hockey and gradually moved into ice hockey.

"Unfortunately, in Kenya very few people know about hockey," Mburu said. "We have very few rinks but it's starting to gain popularity and we hope to raise the level of hockey in Africa."

Proudly decked out in their green and gold Kenya Ice Lions jerseys, Mburu and Sihoho took regular shifts in a fast-paced game against Seibu Junior on Sunday, March 17.

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Benjamin Mburu and Faith Sihoho tested their hockey skills during their recent trip to Japan. (Jim Armstrong)

Mburu says he keeps up with the NHL by watching games on YouTube and other online platforms.

Most of the hockey in Kenya is non-contact but Mburu says he loves the rough stuff too. He got in a few good hits during his trip to Japan and says he's even dropped the gloves a few times.

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Experiencing Japanese Culture in Kansai

In addition to playing hockey, the six Africans got to experience Japanese culture, everything from attending the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in Osaka to meeting geisha in Kyoto to sampling some of the local cuisine.

Sihoho says the ice hockey opportunities in Nairobi are quite limited but that hasn't stopped her from playing the game she loves. 

"It's not that easy to play hockey back home," said Sihoho. "In the whole of Kenya and East Africa we have only one rink so coming to Japan has been a great experience for me."

In 2005, the Solar Ice Rink opened in Nairobi at the Panari Sky Centre, a complex that also includes a hotel and a mall and is about halfway between the city center and the airport.

The 32x12 meter square sheet of ice is the only one of its kind in East and Central Africa.

This facility offers ice hockey lessons that give participants basic skating and puck skills to have a positive experience playing the game.

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Faith Sihoho (left), Benjamin Mburu and Tokyo Canadians team member Joji Hiratsuka sit on the bench at DyDo Drinco Ice Arena alongside another player. (Jim Armstrong)

Friendship League to Visit Kenya in 2025

The Friendship League has another ice hockey trip scheduled for Kenya in 2025 when the Kenya Ice Lions will take part in a 3-on-3 tournament.

Joji Hiratsuka, a longtime member of the Tokyo Canadians, helped in arranging the Japan trip for the six Africans. Hiratsuka, who grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, has traveled the world playing Canada's game.

"It's been an awesome experience playing with this group," said Hiratsuka who took part in the games in Japan with the Africans. "Their passion and love for the game is incredible."

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Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles on SportsLook.

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