Three years ago, I was sitting in a café in Berlin across the table from my German friend. I had just moved into Neukölln, a neighborhood with a notoriously bad reputation. As we were talking about my desire to serve the people of the neighborhood in some way, my friend surprised me with a question, “Why not start a street hockey club?”
“C’mon, this is Germany,” I retorted. “They don’t like hockey!”
Within days, and with my heart still full of doubts, I wrote up a proposal for a street hockey club in Neukölln and applied for funding from the city. To my surprise, the city accepted my pitch and I received money to buy equipment.
It was a small beginning. In a soccer-crazed part of the world, I never thought that a part of my Canadian culture, one of my favourite sports, would ever be used as an opportunity to bring people together. But God proved me wrong.
We began playing every week outside on the street when the weather was nice. It gave me a chance to meet youth in my neighborhood, and to invite others to join in the fun as well.
But I thought to myself, there’s more.
On a trip back to Canada, I was passing through San Francisco airport when I saw a man in a suit carrying a bag with the logo of the Edmonton Oilers on it, my favourite National Hockey League team while growing up. I approached him and found out that he was the Assistant General Manager of the team. I tried to contain my excitement, but I proceeded to pepper him with questions. Caught in the moment, I blurted out, “It’s my dream to start an international street hockey tournament in Berlin.” It was the first time I had spoken about the idea of our street hockey club growing into an international tournament.
The Assistant GM liked the idea and gave me his email address to stay in contact. I could feel the momentum building.
Back in Berlin, one day I saw a man walking down the street wearing a vintage jersey from the Quebec Nordiques, a former NHL team. I was shocked, and immediately approached him. It turned out he was a huge hockey fan who regularly played ice hockey in Berlin. We quickly became friends and he became a pillar of our street hockey club.
As I started gathering people who were interested in supporting the tournament, I quickly realized how intercultural the event could be. On our organizing committee we had a Peruvian-German, a Brazilian-German, a Kosovoian-German, a Brit, and a Syrian, not to mention a Canadian. We were an intercultural team, planning an intercultural event, in a very multicultural city.
We set a date for the tournament and decided on our venue – Tempelhof, the old airport which had been turned into a park. Our tagline was: “Bringing communities together through sport.”
Through my Syrian friend’s contacts, we scored a key meeting and obtained our main organizer and sponsor. As we shared the dream with others, more partners came on board including the German Ice Hockey Federation, Berlin’s local professional ice hockey team, the Canadian embassy, and numerous refugee shelters. As the day approached, the weather forecast was for heavy rain, which was really no surprise since Berlin was in the midst of their Regen-Sommer (summer of rain). I religiously checked the forecast, sometimes several times a day. If it rained, we’d have to cancel the event. Two days before, I gave up looking at the forecast and committed myself to just praying.
The day before the event, we started building our playing fields on the old runway. When my wife, Melissa, and the kids visited us in the afternoon, they exclaimed, “For the first time, the weather forecast for tomorrow is sun during the afternoon!”
The next day, over fifty players showed up. It was raining in the morning, but when we were ready to start playing the clouds cleared and the sun began to shine. We created the teams, trying to balance them out based on experience and ethnicity. We were amazed at the variety – so many different cultures were represented! One player was known to us as a far right-wing extremist. We had seen him holding anti-refugee signs during local demonstrations. On that day, we placed him on a team with some refugees and we saw them bond as teammates.
The atmosphere was very special. One participant said, “My highlight was seeing a young woman playing hockey wearing a burqa!”
The General Secretary of the German Ice Hockey Federation flew in from Munich for the event to observe, and commented, “Everyone is having so much fun, there’s so much joy here today.”
Competition was clearly secondary. People were having fun together, building new friendships with others that they normally wouldn’t be in contact with.
One refugee came to play street hockey that day and left with a new friend and a new place to live. For him, the tournament helped him overcome two of the main challenges for refugees in Berlin – finding an apartment, and finding friends. That day, people were brought together through sport.
Several new partnerships were also formed through the event, including one with a refugee shelter. Now we’re playing hockey indoors at the old Tempelhof Airport Hanger. It’s called “Hanger 1 Hockey,” and it has become a meeting place for refugees and Berliners interested in playing sports together.
Another significant development for me has been that our new Canadian Ambassador to Germany, Stephane Dion, is now a regular at our weekly street hockey club. Only God can orchestrate such seemingly random circumstances for his kingdom purposes. I have enjoyed the opportunity to use one of passions in serving God in Berlin, and I can’t help but think that it brings a smile to God’s face as well.