What Hockey is like...

What Hockey Is Like in South Africa - Jack Burling Nebe, NYU

There is a certain novelty to being a hockey player from South Africa. Upon mentioning that I play hockey at New York University, I’ve been met by double takes, incredulous stares and a host of curious questions. I’ve even been taken into questioning when an American customs official thought my story sounded a little suspicious. Though it did take some persuading, I was able to convince the gentleman that there are indeed ice rinks in South Africa. My all-time favourite response came from one of my NYU teammates who compared my unorthodox hockey playing origins to the story of the Jamaican national bobsled team at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. I was of course flattered to be compared to some Olympians.

I am very proud of unorthodox hockey heritage. There was a certain madness to playing hockey as a kid growing up in southern Africa. Telling my teammates at NYU, nearly all of who grew up playing hockey in North America, some of my hockey playing experiences has made me realise how unconventional my pre-NYU hockey career has been. So I’ll fill you in on some of the strangest moments from my ten-year career.

In March 2010, the South African u18 national team made newspaper headlines. Newspaper placards telling our story were plastered on lampposts and you could hear our story on the radio. However, it was not a conventional sport story. The headlines read: “South African Ice Hockey Team involved in Mexican Gunfight”. To be clear, we weren’t the ones brandishing any guns.

The team, of which I was a member, had travelled to Monterrey, Mexico to compete that year in the u18 Division III IIHF World Championships. After a pre-game practice, in what had been an otherwise uneventful trip, we loaded up the team bus and left the rink to head back to our hotel. It was a routine bus ride until, all of a sudden, our bus driver careened across the road into incoming traffic, shouting at everyone to hit the floor and stay down. Unfortunately none of us spoke any Spanish. But it became quite clear when we saw the upcoming standoff between the police and what appeared to be drug cartel that we should take cover. We all lay down on the bus floor as our bus driver hit the gas. Shots were fired but miraculously the bus made it through the shootout unscathed. It was very much thanks to the bus driver’s quick thinking that we were unharmed. Perhaps it was just another day at the office for him. I certainly did not envy my coach’s job of giving the pre-game speech that day.

Two years later, I found myself in another bizarre situation, this time in Bucharest, Romania. I was travelling with the South African Men’s team, competing at the Division II IIHF World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. We had played two warm-up games in Bucharest and were getting set to catch the train to Sofia. We arrived at the train station with all of our equipment and luggage only to discover that our train was delayed and that we would have to wait an hour until it departed. Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t be an issue. However, as a local guide soon told us, Bucharest’s train station is notorious for its pickpockets. And unfortunately Bucharest’s pickpockets apparently don’t just stick to picking pockets but are also known to take entire luggage bags. As luck would have it, I – as the team’s rookie – was tasked with watching over the team’s bags while everyone went to have some lunch. It wasn’t long after that that a troupe of children – all six no older than ten - arrived and unabashedly started walking amongst the bags, prodding them at various intervals seemingly sizing them up. I was outnumbered. I wasn’t even able to voice my disapproval, not knowing a single word in Romanian. After a tense five minutes, the kids moved off. Perhaps the stench of hockey gear wasn’t to their liking.

A platitude that is often heard in hockey locker rooms is that ‘Adversity is just a test’. However, when the country you’re playing in only has five rinks, it seems as though those adversarial tests grow exponentially. And it is true…South Africa’s ice hockey scene faces many systemic problems. Funding is a perennial issue, affecting the sport’s countrywide exposure as well as its development possibilities. Player retention is low as a result of the extremely high cost of equipment and ice availability. The relatively low number of available coaches hampers player development, resulting in limits in skill development. These are all issues that sports in developing countries have to face.

Coming from a hockey culture that has to battle these challenges has made it clear to me how fortunate I am to now be playing at NYU. However, it has also drawn into sharp focus the incredible perseverance and commitment of the hockey-playing community at home. This is something for which I will always be thankful. They, in many ways, truly live out the saying ‘for the love of the game’.

Sam Cheema