Sunday 26 July 2009

Canada: Madina League Hockey Ball game fifth season just concluded

It's twilight, the sun has set behind the hills bordering the Milliken Mills Community Centre in Markham. Inside the arena, the echoing clatter of hockey sticks and shouts quickly dies down. The players remove their helmets, lay down their sticks and answer the call to prayer.

"You always have to take into consideration the prayer times," said Safi Habib, commissioner of the Madina Hockey League, a Muslim ball hockey league in east Toronto.

"The best time to play ball hockey is the nighttime, around the sunset or after the sunset," because there are fewer prayers, said Habib, 33, as the players, bowing on a white mat in the corner of the rink, observe the fourth prayer of the day.

There are more than 400 Muslims playing organized ball hockey across Greater Toronto, and interest in the connection between the community and the sport is at a high.

Last month, the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted their first Muslim player, Nazem Kadri.

The 5-foot-11 centre played for the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights and was the seventh overall pick, the highest a Muslim player has ever been drafted.

If he gets called up, Kadri would be the second Muslim player of Middle Eastern descent to play in the National Hockey League: Montreal-born Ramzi Abid played parts of four seasons before moving to Europe a few years ago.

"We are crossing our fingers," said Habib, "we would love to see (Kadri) in a Leafs uniform."

Like most Canadians, said Habib, Muslim youth have grown up loving hockey. They were playing ball hockey in large numbers in the mid-1980s and within a decade were competing on organized teams and in tournaments.

Last weekend marked the fifth annual Salaam Cup, a three-day event in Malton that saw the country's top Muslim players go head to head.

The Greenbirds took the cup.

Members of Canada's Muslim community, said Habib, "are utilizing the skills they have learned from their parents and their home countries," such as Pakistan and India, where cricket and field hockey are the dominant sports, "and using them in a sport Canadians love to play."

"They bring that culture of athleticism from those countries. They want to adapt to what Canadians do and hockey is the first thing that comes to mind."

From a practical perspective the sport is also far less expensive than ice hockey, since it requires minimal equipment, and, although many teams choose to play in arenas, all you need is a patch of concrete or a parking lot.

The Madina league has eight teams, each with about 16 to 18 players. They meet every Friday night in Markham, battling towards the Madina Cup in mid-August.

At the community centre in Markham, the first teams to play are the Hitmen and the Shaolin Monks.

As the game progresses, heat radiates off the players on the bench. The air thickens with the smell of sweat and the slightly rank scent of hockey equipment a few games overdue for a good cleaning.

"We are doing all right, obviously we are killing them," said Monks player Muqtidah Gulam, 29, after his team takes a 5-0 lead.

Players shout encouragement, but there is little to no swearing. The Muslim faith discourages profanity, anger or competitive aggression. Swearing in tournament play will result in a penalty and could mean a suspension, said Habib. "We are trying to teach the religion as much as possible, and that is hard to do if you are allowing bodychecks or fighting."

On the bench for the Hitmen is Zaid Majoo, a burly 23-year-old whose gold-toothed grin is wide and frequent, even as he watches his team go down in smoke.

"Hands down they are just hustling us. Outplaying us every single place, to the boards, to the net, everywhere," said Majoo.

The Monks win 6-0. The two teams shake and clear the rink. Meanwhile, throngs of Muslim boys and young men arrive to watch the next game.

Paying rapt attention is Usamah Bhoola, a 9-year-old centre for Team Corporate, one of 20 teams that make up the Scarborough Muslim Ball Hockey Association.

Bhoola, who plays Sunday mornings in the parking lot of Cornell Junior Public School, likes "passing and shooting."

"Kids love the game of hockey," said league president Saleh Hafejee, 42. "They are exposed to the game and they want to play." The league formed in 2003, out of the Jame Abu Bakr Siddique mosque at Lawrence Ave. E. and Midland Ave. It has 250 players and is growing as new immigrants sign on. "They don't have the skills, but their friends are playing. So they are getting involved."

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