NHL stars like Toronto Maple Leafs forward Zack Hyman and Hockey Hall of Famer Doug Gilmour surprised a group of young hockey players across the country this week by giving their passion for the sport a big boost.

Partnering with several programs such as non-profit Hockey 4 Youth, which gives new Canadians a chance to play hockey for free, the athletes donated ice time and equipment for the upcoming season.

Due to the pandemic, the Everyone Deserves a Team initiative was announced over a surprise Zoom call to young hockey players in six different cities.

“Watching these kids’ [reactions] who can’t afford [to play hockey]… it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing,” said Gilmour.

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According to the Institute of Canadian Citizenship, 71 per cent of new citizens express an interest in playing hockey but only one per cent have the opportunity to do so.

Hockey 4 Youth helps to address that by breaking down social and economic barriers to the sport for young newcomers to the country.

“The more kids that come through our program, the more they’re going to go into their communities and say, ‘This is a sport that’s open to you, it’s accessible, it’s inclusive, we play in a safe environment and we want you to play,’” said executive director and founder, Moezine Hasham.

Since 2015, hundreds of kids from dozens of different countries have taken part in Hockey 4 Youth which provides free ice time and coaching. The surprise gift from the National Hockey League Players’ Association along with Sonnet Insurance delighted the kids who said they can’t wait to get back on the ice.

“I love hockey because being on the ice the best feeling you can possibly feel in this world,” said 16-year-old Blessing Boakye, who moved to Canada from Ghana several years ago and joined Hockey 4 Youth which helped him to embrace the sport.

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The program’s goal is to make hockey more inclusive for newcomers and Boakye said he hopes to see more people like him on the ice.

“Being the only person, you might feel different. But if more people are like you, you feel more comfortable,” he said.

During the Zoom chat, Boakye made a point to ask Hyman about tackling racism in hockey.

“We all need to do a better job, especially in hockey because, like you said it’s predominantly a white sport and I think we have to encourage everybody to get involved,” Hyman answered.

“That’s one of our slogans as players, ‘Hockey is for everyone.’”

Seventeen-year-old Crissha Salaritan arrived in Canada several years ago from the Philippines. She said she found a love for hockey through Hockey 4 Youth and would like to see more Asians and women represented in the sport because it would help to make her feel more confident.

“We’ve got to speak up for people like us to show ourselves that we can do this kind of sport too,” said Salaritan.

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The start of the new season for the kids is still unknown, but they said they are standing by ready to lace up and get back out on the ice as soon as they can and they’re looking forward to breaking in the new equipment.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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