Before moving to Canada in 2019, Joy Uchenna knew nothing about hockey.
“I just knew that it was a very popular sport played here, but I didn’t know any teams or anything about it,” the Grade 12 St. Joseph’s Catholic High School student told CBC News
Uchenna, 17, was one of three teenage girls from Windsor who travelled to Toronto for the PWHL’s NHL All-Star Weekend, where they got the opportunity to hit the ice at Nathan Phillips Square and meet NHL and PWHL stars ahead of All-Star weekend.
Travelling with her were Ayesa Arquero, 15, and Mer Martin, 17 — also students of St. Joseph’s Catholic High School.
The three are members of the Hockey 4 Youth program, which is aimed at teaching new Canadian youth the ins and outs of Canada’s official winter sport.
WATCH | New hockey players hit the ice in Windsor as part of Hockey 4 Youth Foundation:
Uchenna, who came to Canada from Nigeria, said she was “speechless” when she got the good news from her principal two weeks ago.
“When we arrived in Toronto we got to meet a couple girls, people of colour, who were also skating, that had more experience than us. I think that was pretty cool. We made friendships pretty fast,” Uchenna told CBC News.
“And then the next day … we got to see Mary Phillips and Tom Wilson. They got to sign our jersey. We got this pretty cool jersey there. Then … we went to walk the red carpet before the NHL and PWHL stars. And then we got a couple pictures, received the cheque and … we went to watch the PWHL game.”
Selfie with Connor McDavid
Uchenna’s face lit up when she shared that they all got to take a selfie with Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, widely considered to be hockey’s best current player.
“This is the second day of this so surreal experience,” Uchenna said via a Zoom video call on Friday.
“Like, from the day I received the email of the train ticket, I didn’t think this was real. And then we get to see all these players and everything — take selfies sign the autograph, like, I’m still getting into the moment,” she said .
“I know for the next few days I’m gonna be like, this did not just happen to me right now because originally … somebody had to drop [out of] the program for me to enter in, and here I am.”
Arquero moved to Canada from the Philippines two years ago and, like Uchenna, all she knew about hockey was that it’s the national sport of Canada.
Arquero said she “was really overwhelmed” walking the red carpet but she’s “had so much fun” being part of this “once in a lifetime experience.”
“I got so happy too because I met the players from NHL and PWHL,” she said.
Martin is a first-generation Canadian whose parents moved to Canada from South Sudan. She said she never saw herself getting into hockey due to the high cost for equipment, but she has grown to love the game.
Walking the red carpet was also the highlight for her and she’s thankful to those who made it possible.
Founder and executive director of Hockey 4 Youth Foundation, Moezine Hasham, said the goal of his organization is to foster social inclusion for newcomer and sidelined youth and kids through the game of hockey — by giving them a free opportunity to play the game.
They also offer an experiential learning program called Teach.
“An experience like what the girls have seen over the last couple of days is what we’re talking about. It’s about building life experience, it’s about doing media interviews, walking the red carpet, learning how to share their stories. All of that is what the organization is about,” Hasham said.
To date, Hasham said, the Hockey 4 Youth Foundation has worked with more than 700 kids representing 41 different countries of origin including South Sudan, Vietnam, Mexico, Japan, India, Pakistan and Somalia.
“We have these kids who have come to Canada, whether it’s through difficult circumstances and other circumstances and we just want them to feel like they belong,” he said.
“The game is so incredibly exclusive and difficult to get into, and so what we’ve said is the only barrier should be the boards and and we wanted to remove everything that we could think of that would stop a young person like Mer or Ayesa or Joy from playing the game.
Rogers Communications Inc. has partnered Hockey 4 Youth Foundation, providing funding for the program.