Police officers in 54 Division are introducing Canada’s favourite game to youngsters who might not be able to afford the high cost of the national pastime.
Before this winter, 10-year-old Rufinah Abdurusul had never played hockey. While she enjoyed watching on television, what she really wanted was to play the game. Her mother, Jamila, decided to put her in a league in their Thorncliffe neighbourhood and now the grade four student is a top goal scorer on her team.
Abdurusul is a part of the Toronto Police team in the ProAction Hockey League (PAHL), a free league for community members of Thorncliffe and Flemingdon Park – two lower-income neighbourhoods adjacent to the city’s Don Valley. It is funded by ProAction Cops & Kids and coached by officers from 54 Division and community volunteers.
The idea came about six years ago, with about 60 boys signing up for the league. Today, the league has more than 130 children, aged 8-11, with 30 percent of them girls, according to Aishah Sheri, President of PAHL.
“Many children, when they first come here, don’t know how to skate,” says Constable Dave Besco, who leads the Toronto Police involvement in the league and also coaches.
Before the season starts, officers run a 10-week hockey school program, which leads into a 15-week hockey season with eight separate teams for the different age groups.
The popularity of the program has soared with community members and, according to Sheri, there are more than 100 children on the waiting list.
The community PAHL caters to is made up largely of immigrants from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, says community member Nazerah Shaikh – and for parents to get involved in a winter sport and embrace winter is one way of beginning their life in Canada.
For the children of the PAHL, it’s the thrill of playing the game that brings them out every Sunday.
“When I score a goal, I feel very proud of myself,” says Abdurusal, smiling. “We are improving,” adds the young girl, who has scored a goal in every game she has played this season. “I like scoring goals and I like playing defence.”
“I scored a goal too! By accident,” interrupts nine-year-old Bibi Aishah Bharudi, with excitement. She and her younger brother both play for the league. Her mother explains she wanted her children to learn the game because it was a Canadian sport.
“It’s a Canadian sport, we are Canadian… I wanted my children to learn it,” says Fehmida Bharudi. The Indian-born Bharudi notes it was possible to enroll in the league because the PAHL is free to participants who are also outfitted with equipment. “My children knew how to skate and I heard about the program, so I put her in it.”
“We know we are in safe hands, we see officers there and they are friendly and nice, coaching the children…they’re supportive,” she says.
The program has gotten the mother of four so involved in the sport that she has started taking skating classes so she can skate with her children.
“It’s great, I go to their schools and instead of calling me ‘officer’ they say ‘hey coach’,” says Besco. “And to see the smile on their faces when they see me at their school, it’s a great feeling.”
This is the sort of community relationship the program hopes to build – a positive one with children from the area.
It is especially good for boys to see the officers in another light, says Shaikh.
“In our culture the police are portrayed as people of power, people of position but I think when they show that people of power and position can use that to benefit the entire community…then they become more approachable and more real people and you see the softer side to law enforcement.”
For Constable Steve Hanks, it’s his love of the game that led him to start coaching.
“It’s such a great skill to have to get out on the ice and learn how to skate… to see these kids that wouldn’t otherwise know how to enjoy the game or enjoy even skating the way I did growing up. I have kids and I encourage them to skate and I see how my kids love to skate and I see that expressed in these young kids every week… it’s fantastic.”