Z ahra is in the middle of a conversation when she spots a waving hand on the other side of the glass. “Give me one second,” she tells her friend. The 16-year-old rushes to the door that connects the rink to the lobby because she needs to show this off. Her mom and two brothers have just arrived at Angela James Arena in North York, Ont., and this is the first time they’re seeing her decked out in hockey equipment. Her siblings jokingly pat her helmet, while her mom whips out a phone to snap a photo.
A few feet away, another teenager emerges from the women’s dressing room with a worried expression. “My jersey is too loose,” she says. She tugs at the hockey sweater with both hands, but her disapproving look soon turns into a smile when a classmate assures her that it’s not supposed to fit snugly.
Minutes from now, Zahra, her friend and 13 other high-school students from Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute will hit the ice for an unstructured practice. Some have never played the sport while others have only worn skates on a handful of occasions. Naturally, that leads to plenty of waddling and spills, but the hockey sticks help to keep them upright.
Amidst all of this, Moezine Hasham is racing around the rink. One second he’s instructing a player on the ice, the next he’s adjusting a student’s helmet. A few moments later, he’s rummaging through his giant hockey bag, searching for a neck guard. This event is Hasham’s doing. He’s the founder of Hockey 4 Youth, an organization that provides newcomer and high-priority teens with opportunities to play hockey free of charge, as well as partake in experiential learning opportunities off the ice.
Hasham’s goal is simple — to foster social inclusion for these teens. And that aim has his complete devotion. This has been Hasham’s life since 2015, when he started the program in Toronto. Hockey 4 Youth is not intended to develop elite players. Instead, it uses the game as a tool to help kids integrate into this country. That means different things for different students — improvement in a new sport can bring about positive changes in mental health, confidence and communication skills, among other things. The hope is that those beneficial changes ultimately contribute toward a better life for every kid who goes through the organization.
“Moe is making a generational impact,” says Bryant McBride, a former NHL executive who has known Hasham for a decade. “He is changing lives every day. Hockey is just a vehicle.”
T o understand the ways Hasham’s life has come full circle, the beginning of his hockey journey is important. The youngest of four siblings, he was born in New Westminster, B.C., and grew up in Vancouver. His parents, Ismaili Muslim immigrants from Uganda, moved the clan to a cooperative housing complex that was home to plenty of other young families. Hasham was attracted to street hockey and spent much of his time playing with the other neighbourhood kids.
His neighbour, Mrs. Brown, took note of Hasham’s passion for the game. Her own son played ice hockey and one day, she gathered the equipment he had outgrown, gave it to the Hashams and convinced them to enroll their six-year-old son in a league. They did and Hasham’s path was set. “Without that equipment, I’m not able to get on the ice because my parents are struggling to earn a living,” Hasham, now 44, recalls.
Hasham’s parents separated when he was 12 and watching his single mother, Zebunnissa, struggle to provide for him and his siblings was an experience that informed his future work. He continued playing hockey through his youth and during his time at the University of Northern British Columbia, and after graduating, Hasham worked in community relations for Telus, mostly building out corporate philanthropic programs. Through that role he made connections with a youth hockey charity called HEROS and eventually joined the organization in 2010, moving to Toronto to help establish initiatives in the city. The experience further opened his eyes to the sport’s ability to positively impact children’s lives.
Hasham found himself at a career and personal crossroads in his mid-30s. He left HEROS and was in between jobs when he learned that his father, Noorali, who had moved back to Uganda, was ill. He decided to travel to Africa and spend six months with his dad. The time enabled Hasham to gain a deeper understanding of his father, who wasn’t always around while he was growing up. They talked for hours, a son getting to know his dad as an adult. Hasham asked about his father’s dreams as a young man and learned that he’d wanted to be a religious teacher. Those dreams, though, were halted when he moved his family to Canada in 1972. That year, all people of South Asian descent were expelled from Uganda by President Idi Amin.
Hasham’s dream was to continue working with youth in hockey. He had met Willie O’Ree years earlier and never forgot the inspiration he’d felt observing firsthand the extensive advocacy work of the NHL’s first Black player. Hasham wanted to do something meaningful — he wanted to start his own organization and work with teenagers who were newcomers or from high-priority neighbourhoods. His father offered straightforward advice: ‘Go and chase your dream.’
“My dad worked hard his whole life,” says Hasham, whose father died in 2020. “But I don’t think he found his way. Life was hard for him. Spending that time with him helped me understand: if you have a dream, you’ve got to chase it.”
H ockey 4 Youth formed in 2015 and has since worked with over 500 teenagers from more than 34 countries of origin. It began running programs in Toronto, and has since expanded to Montreal and Ottawa, working with a total of nine high schools. By October, programming in Hamilton will be included, raising that number to 11.
One facet of the free program provides teens with hockey equipment and instruction on the ice. Most of the coaches are from partner schools, though members of the Ryerson and University of Toronto women’s hockey teams have also volunteered. The off-ice component of Hockey 4 Youth focuses on hands-on learning experiences in a variety of subjects: technology, entrepreneurship, arts, community giving and healthy active living. The idea is to expose students to opportunities that might not be provided by high-school curriculum. Examples include learning about financial literacy on Bay Street and visiting a technology firm called Slalom, spending an afternoon learning to code.
Some of the programming is created with a specific eye toward assisting newcomers. “We know that they’re already on the back foot and they have a number of barriers to fostering inclusion as teenagers,” says Hasham. “They’re facing challenges with fitting in. They’re facing challenges with making friends. They’re facing challenges with English literacy. So, the idea is let’s bring them into a sport that they will never get a chance to play because minor hockey is not set up to welcome them into the sport.”
The organization has worked with an impressive list of corporate partners, including the NHL, MLSE, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Canadian Tire Jumpstart and Scotiabank. Hasham’s own profile within the industry has been rising, as well. “I remember Willie [O’Ree] telling me about him,” says McBride, who was the NHL’s first Black executive. (The league’s vice-president of business development from 1992 to 2000, he also started the NHL diversity task force, which has since morphed into Hockey is for Everyone.) “Willie told me, ‘Oh you gotta meet Moe. You got to meet this guy. He’s doing something great.’ And Willie doesn’t say that — he likes everybody, and he’s very complimentary of people, but he never says anything that pointed. I was like, ‘Huh.’ Willie knows thousands of volunteers and people who help kids through hockey, so when he calls somebody out like that, you know that something’s going on.”
Paul Hillman is the head of phys. ed. at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute and has worked with Hasham since Hockey 4 Youth’s inception. He says Hasham’s authenticity is a key component to helping the program thrive. “This is his passion,” Hillman says. “He grew up in a family with meagre earnings and got some equipment donated to him so he could play. [He] loved it, got immersed in that, and then basically wanted to pay it forward to many new people who are in the same situation. He’s a humanitarian as well — he wants the best for the community.”
It’s an easy and oversimplified narrative to say that hockey helps newcomers to Canada develop a sense of national identity. Hillman notes that many of the students he comes across don’t yet have any sense of the Canadian identity, because they’re so new. While the program does make the sport feel less foreign, allowing them to understand and contribute to the inevitable hockey conversations that come with living in this country, Hockey 4 Youth’s true value is its impact beyond the game — building friendships and a sense of community; helping students get more comfortable in their own skin.
That impact can be tough to capture in general terms; the particular benefits and takeaways look different from student to student. It’s worth it, then, to explore some individual examples because, according to Hillman, “These stories are real. They’re not ‘Movie of the Week.’ We see it every day. They’re real. They’re powerful stories.”
C rissha struggled when she came to Toronto from Davao City, Philippines in 2018. She was lonely and missing her friends back home. The 12-hour time difference made even phone conversations with them difficult, and to make things worse, she wasn’t used to the brutal Canadian winter. She joined the basketball team at Marc Garneau in hopes that it would help, but as the new member of a squad on which everyone already knew each other, she ended up feeling even more isolated. School was tough, too. As the first member of her family educated outside of the Philippines, Crissha placed immense pressure on herself.
With those stresses piling up, she finally encountered a reprieve when a friend brought up the idea of learning to skate at Hockey 4 Youth in 2019. It was outside her comfort zone, but she decided to give it a shot and by the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit the following year, Crissha was already adept on the ice. She visited a nearby outdoor rink every day during the first lockdown, engaging in one of the few activities that was available outside the home at the time. “I used skating as a form of therapy,” says the 18-year-old. “Whenever I feel lonely or that nobody understands me, I just go skating and the wind in my face feels so freeing. You’re just floating on ice. It’s skating, but it feels like floating. It’s outdoors, so you can just look at the sky.”
This past December, Crissha was chosen as a pregame flag-bearer by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Of course, the idea of nearly 20,000 people watching your every move on the ice is nerve-wracking. Yet, Crissha had a plan for success: She would look down at the ice in order to keep her emotions in check. Midway through her trip around the rink, though, she abandoned that. “I was like, ‘Why would I look at the floor? I’m not going to remember anything if I just look at the floor,’” she says. “So, I looked up and saw these people staring at me. It was really great. I was like, ‘Oh my God, why are you staring at me?’ But then I was like, ‘Hell yeah, stare at me. Look at me.’”
Crissha was recognized by several strangers in the crowd later that night. One couple even asked to take a picture with her and posted it on Instagram. Crissha says it made her feel like a celebrity. When her friends in the Philippines eventually saw the video of her skating at Scotiabank Arena, they offered a perspective that underlined to Crissha just how far she had progressed over the past few years.
“They were like ‘Oh my God, Crissha, we’re so proud of you, look at what you’ve become,’” she recalls with a smile. “‘You were really shy here in the Philippines.’ I wasn’t confident in myself and I would just turn down opportunities. And now, they’re like, ‘You’re skating in an arena [with thousands of people]. That’s so Canadian of you.’”
T ake one look at Amir and you can immediately tell he’s a diehard sports fan. The 17-year-old Eritrean is wearing a Raptors hoodie, Blue Jays hat and Maple Leafs jersey as he sits down at a cafeteria table at Marc Garneau. When he arrived in Toronto from Saudi Arabia in 2016, Amir didn’t even know what basketball, baseball or hockey were. That changed rather quickly, though. His introduction to North American sports came when he took up ball hockey at a nearby community centre and caught the attention of Hillman, the phys. ed. teacher. Hillman introduced Amir to Hasham and soon enough, Amir was on skates.
The Grade 12 student is a ball of energy. He’s a social butterfly who some at Hockey 4 Youth believe will eventually become a community leader. He’s also worked diligently to improve on the ice. Amir is no longer worried about falling and doesn’t skate with his head down anymore — instead, his eyes are always up, looking for an opening or a pass. Arriving at this point wasn’t easy, but that’s okay by Amir. He views hockey as a metaphor for life. “It helped me understand that in life, sometimes you fall, sometimes you don’t get the results you want,” he says. “That’s why you have to work harder each day. Sometimes, even after you work hard, you’ll still fall. But you gotta learn that you can’t give up. You worked so hard and you want to give up that easy? You gotta get back up.”
That ethos was put to the test in late February, when Amir was selected as a Maple Leafs flag-bearer. His experience was different than Crissha’s — his heart was pounding even before he arrived at Scotiabank Arena and when he stepped onto the ice, two words ran on a loop in his head: ‘Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall.’ He did, though, taking a spill so rough that some in attendance thought he was injured. “After I fell, I got up and kept skating,” recalls Amir. “I looked around and the fans were cheering for me. I was like, ‘This feels nice.’ I saw some guy was pounding on the glass, cheering for me. The glass was bending he was cheering so hard.”
Two of his classmates were in the crowd and captured video of Amir’s time with the flag. They shared it on social media and by the next day, it seemed like every student at Marc Garneau had watched. Some even congratulated Amir in the hallway or in class, telling him he was a “hockey legend.” Conveniently, the video started after his fall — his friends only hitting record after he picked himself up. Those buddies know his secret and have promised Amir they’ll stay silent. After all, he’s now got a reputation to uphold.
“I told them, just keep it between me and you, you know,” Amir says with a grin. “Just don’t tell anyone.”
W hen she was living in Dubai with her family, Omiya says, sports were “not really a girls’ thing.” She remembers the sting of being excluded while the boys were offered ample opportunity to play. Gym was her favourite subject in school, yet there were no programs she could join afterward. So, when she arrived in Toronto seven years ago, Omiya took full advantage and played as many sports as she could. Baseball was her favourite initially, but after joining Hockey 4 Youth in 2018 while in Grade 9, at the recommendation of friends who were in the program, Omiya developed an affinity for skating.
She felt a freedom on the ice that she couldn’t find elsewhere. Gliding around the rink, her thoughts and problems faded away, says the 18-year-old. And when the pandemic hit and Hockey 4 Youth was unavailable to students, she realized just how much the sport meant to her — and just how monotonous her days could be without it. “Studying, marks, school,” Omiya says. “The tension.” Hockey allowed her to release that tension while also connecting to a community. That was evident from her first day at the rink.
“When I went into the changeroom, I saw girls from all over the world,” says Omiya. “That was kind of relieving because I didn’t feel like an outsider. I was like, ‘Oh, I belong with them.’ We were all beginners. So that was a good thing.”
H asham is engaged in conversation in the cafeteria at Marc Garneau, when a student casually plops down beside him. Hasham realizes the boy wants to chat, but he’s trying to finish relaying his thoughts first. The teenager, Rezan, waits calmly for a solid 10 minutes.
Finally, when Hasham is free, he immediately asks the boy, “Did you get it?”
Rezan replies, in the most unassuming manner: “Yes.”
Hasham nearly jumps out of his seat in excitement. “You got it! That’s amazing!” he enthuses before offering a congratulatory handshake.
Rezan, who immigrated to Canada from Amuda, Syria, has just landed his first-ever job. It’s a co-op placement at a barbershop and represents a significant step toward his goal of cutting hair for a living. It’s clear that Rezan’s success resonates deeply with Hasham. “I’m just happy that I was able to be a part of his journey,” Hasham says afterward.
Rezan struggled with English when he first arrived in Toronto in 2017. As a result, he largely kept to himself. His older sister suggested they join Hockey 4 Youth together, in part because she felt that being involved in something of that nature would help Rezan open up. At first, coaches couldn’t even get him to respond to simple questions, but over several months, he finally began to feel more at ease. “Talking to a teacher is a lot different than talking to a person your age,” Rezan says. “You feel more comfortable talking to a teacher because they won’t judge. And they accept whatever you are going through. Whatever you do. And wherever they can help, they do.”
Now, the hard work Rezan put in to learn English in school and on the ice is evident. He speaks with confidence and is extremely thoughtful. His story perfectly encapsulates one of Hasham’s personal mantras: Stepping onto the ice is stepping into life for these kids. In a way, it mirrors Hasham’s own experience as a six-year-old in Vancouver receiving that hand-me-down hockey equipment. That was an instrumental moment in his life and it’s still in his mind these days, as he devotes himself to service.
“My happiest time is being on ice with these kids,” says Hasham. “It makes me so happy to be out there just skating around and feeling young and, at the same time, seeing those smiles when a kid takes that first step on the ice. I remember what that was like for me.
“I love teaching them how to fall and get back up,” he continues. “It’s by far my favourite thing because I know when they get up, they’re like, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ It means to me that they understand the life lesson behind the sport, which is when you fall, you get back up. You try, you keep pushing. Those cliches that we hear? ‘You only have one life to live.’ It’s true. You’ve got to take those risks.”