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Feeling more Canadian, one ball-hockey game at a time

Children take part in Ball Hockey for Newcomers at the MLSE Launchpad in Toronto, Mar 29 2017.

A program sponsored by the NHL and players' association helps children new to Canada learn the game and more quickly connect with the wider community

Aya Negm and her little sister Menna looked shyly at the ball-hockey sticks lined against the wall, and then each girl excitedly reached for one. This was very different from the sports they had tried when they lived in Egypt – basketball, soccer and swimming – but the youngsters were intrigued.

The two sisters, 10 and 6, were getting a first brush with hockey, thanks to a Toronto program for new Canadians, part of the NHL and NHLPA's 2016 World Cup of Hockey Legacy Project. The league and its players' association commissioned a free ball-hockey program for kids of the city's recent immigrants. It's just one of the many efforts across the NHL to reach a wider, more diverse fan base and provide a gateway to hockey participation.

The ball-hockey program recently kicked off at the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Foundation's brand-new recreation facility in Toronto – MLSE LaunchPad – which offers free programming to the city's underserviced youth. The twice-weekly program runs on a sports court inside the modern 42,000-square-foot facility in the Moss Park neighbourhood, on the ground floor of a Toronto Community Housing building.

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Allie Cornacchia offers instructions to six-year-old Menna Negm.

"We were looking for a place where we could find support in Canada, and make friends," said the girls' mother, Mona Hady. "I want the girls to build more confidence. I want them to play in a place that is safe."

The girls were two of 16 kids gathered for the new learn-to-play program that day, scampering around learning the fundamentals of stick-handling, passing and shooting through fun games. Some had just come off the basketball court across the gym, while others were wearing indoor soccer shoes and soccer socks.

"I was a ball hog at first and now I communicate more," said Abdul Abduliaah, a 10-year-old who emigrated from Libya. "I don't know how to skate. I never ice skated before, but I really love to score lots of goals in ball hockey. I didn't play any sports before I moved to Canada, but now I think I'm going to play a lot of sports in my life."

For many of these children, it's the first time they've ever partaken in an organized sports program. The staff at MLSE LaunchPad got the word out through settlement services and put out posters in multiple languages. The first session has a limited capacity but they hope to grow it as it runs three more times this year.

The Toronto program is part of the NHL and NHLPA’s 2016 World Cup of Hockey Legacy Project.

"A program like this is great for newcomers to get to know others that are going through similar experiences," said Vera Dodic, manager of Toronto Newcomer Office. "Children and youth are able to build on their confidence and the sense of belonging faster. This obviously will help the whole family integrate faster into our communities."

Some families who visit MLSE LaunchPad need convincing that sports are as worthy of the child's time as homework or chores. Beyond the Maple Leafs logo on the court where they play, there is no obvious marketing of the team or the NHL to the kids. Coaches weave a different life skill, like independence or communication, into each day's lesson.

"They're playing on a Leafs-branded floor, so maybe they'll be compelled to turn on hockey on a Saturday night and find our team playing, but this is first about helping young people find life opportunities through sport," said Justin Bobb, director of sport programming at MLSE LaunchPad. "Are we running this program so these kids will want to buy a Mitch Marner jersey or Leafs tickets? No, not really. We don't want them to fall in love with the Leafs because the team helped build this place. We want them to fall in love with physical activity and then maybe find our team at some point."

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Organizers they’re not trying to turn participants into Leafs fan, but to teach the kids life skills.

More than 300,000 newcomers arrived in Canada from July, 2015, to July, 2016, according to Statistics Canada. Meanwhile, the Migration Policy Institute says 1.38 million foreign-born individuals moved to the U.S. in 2015. As of the 2015-16 season, the NHL had players from 19 different countries.

So the NHL's continued efforts to grow diversity are important, and they certainly aren't the only league or business competing to reach new settlers soon after their arrival. To kick things off at the World Cup of Hockey, more than 100 new Canadians took their citizenship oath at the fan village in Toronto, including long-time Swedish NHL star Daniel Alfredsson. Every new citizen got a Canadian hockey jersey.

"We believe that diversity isn't just for the sake of diversity," said Jessica Berman, the NHL's vice-president of special projects and corporate social responsibility. "We think people from different backgrounds playing our sport will make the product better and the experience more rich and meaningful for our fans."

The program is part of the NHL’s continuing efforts to reach a more diverse audience.

The Leafs' community team organized a ball-hockey tournament for more than 100 Syrian refugees and their families in Sault Ste. Marie – including 70 children. Leafs legend Wendel Clark attended the event, handing out Maple Leafs merchandise and hockey sticks to participants.

The Washington Capitals brought Fatima Al Ali to Washington, a player from the United Arab Emirates women's national team, and gave her a whirlwind day with her favourite NHL team.

The San Jose Sharks held a Sikh Heritage night.

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The Boston Bruins continued their five-year project to help build hockey in China, which has also strengthened its relationship with the Chinese community in New England. They hosted clinics in China last summer, brought Chinese youth hockey players from Beijing to Boston, and held a Chinese cultural night at TD Garden.

Aya Negm hits the hockey ball into a practice net.

The Calgary Flames invited new Canadians to watch a practice, learn about youth hockey in the city and hang out with assistant general manager Craig Conroy and Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi broadcaster Harnarayan Singh.

"I was telling people how becoming a hockey fan can help someone feel a part of Canadian life – it certainly did for me," said Singh, who was born in Alberta to parents who moved here from India, and became an Edmonton Oilers fan. "Most there that day had never been inside an NHL arena and we chatted with them as they watched practice down in the lower bowl. We also showed them video of special moments when hockey brought Canadians together – like the Vancouver Olympics or the Summit Series."

The kids at MLSE LaunchPad concluded their ball-hockey session with a scrimmage, cheering wildly for each goal. Before they left for the night, they were handed tablets and asked to answer a few simple survey questions so the NHL, NHLPA and MLSE can track their attitudes toward sports and fitness, math, reading, writing, their sense of belonging in their new community, and whether they consider themselves hockey fans.

"We think hockey teaches teamwork, commitment and perseverance – all qualities that make people successful in life in Canada," said Berman. "So here is access to our sport, and we want you to know that it is for everyone and we believe that being part of it can help to make you feel more Canadian."

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