18-year-old Anwar Hared of Newmarket has just returned from Russia after his team was annihilated in the world championships of the hockey-like sport. He had the time of his life.
In Newmarket, Anwar Hared was just another minor league hockey player: average, albeit enthusiastic. In Khabarovsk, a sprawling city in Russia’s frigid Far East, the 18-year-old solidified his position as the star of Somalia’s national bandy team.
“I’ve never had a better trip in my life,” Hared says from his parents’ Newmarket home. “Once you put the flag on your chest, it’s a fight to the death.”
Hared just returned home from the 35th Bandy World Championship in Khabarovsk, which runs through March.
Don’t know what bandy is? Think ice hockey with a ball instead of a puck, on a rink the size of a soccer field. Popular in the Nordic and former Soviet states, this fast-paced sport is dominated by Russia and Sweden.
In five games, Hared’s team scored three goals and allowed 63 on net, putting them dead last out of 17 teams. But consider that three years ago, Hared was the only member of the team who knew how to skate. All of them, Hared says, had the time of their lives in Russia.
“Most of my teammates were born in Somalia,” Hared says. “99 per cent of them have experienced the trauma of war.”
“Just to see the players participate in a world cup . . . was great,” team manager Cia Embretsen says. “The players were treated as heroes and idols.”
The unlikely story of Somalia’s national bandy team begins in late 2012 in Borlänge, Sweden, an industrial town 200 km northwest of Stockholm. Fleeing war and poverty, Somalis now number roughly 3,000 out of Borlänge’s population of over 40,000. As elsewhere in Europe, an influx of African and Middle Eastern migrants has sparked an upsurge in far-right politics in this historically liberal state.
Contemplating this, local businessman Patrik Andersson got it in his head that bandy would be the perfect way to bring Swedes and Somalis together. The Federation of International Bandy, the sport’s governing body, and Somalia’s Ministry of Youth and Sports loved the idea. Players — mostly teens and twenty-somethings who were born in Somalia — were drawn from a local Somali soccer team, and spent nearly a year training before the 34th Bandy World Championship in January 2014.All of this, however, was happening unbeknown to Hared.
Hared’s parents left their beleaguered nation for Canada five years before their son was born. Like many Canadians, Hared grew up playing hockey.
In late 2013, he got a call from a family friend in Sweden.
Soft-spoken, with a broad, easy smile, Hared laughs at the memory. “They asked me if I wanted to play bandy…I’d never even heard of the sport.”
Hared, of course, said yes. The friend contacted the team. They were thrilled: a Canadian ringer! In less than three weeks, Hared, a Grade 12 student at the time, found himself on a plane to Sweden. He spent one day practising with his new teammates and then flew to Russia for their first international tournament.
Those first games were both rough and fun. The players, still wobbly on their skates, kept wiping out as they dashed madly after the ball. But they played with heart. Hared managed to score the team’s first ever goal: a brilliant five-hole shot, right between a German goalkeeper’s legs. Somalia would go on to lose that game 22-1. The team only managed to score three goals in the 2014 tournament. Two of them were Hared’s.
“I don’t want to be cocky or anything,” Hared says sheepishly, “but they think I’m the team’s offensive weapon.”
Emretsen, one of the team’s managers, agrees.
“Anwar was the team’s star and a great asset… both on and off the ice,” she says.The team lost all of their games in 2014, finishing dead last behind a Winnipeg-based Canadian team that did not compete in 2015. This year, Hared was back in Russia for the team’s second international tournament, scoring one goal in a bout against China.
“I’d say that was my best game.”
Fans and other players were nothing but encouraging, Hared says. Spectators, he says, cheered disproportionately for the Somali underdogs, and the team even attracted a group of diehard Russian superfans who followed them wherever they’d go. They did, however, get more than a few curious looks in Khabarovsk.
“A lot of them had never seen African people before,” Hared laughs. “We had to pose for a lot of photos.”
A first-year economics student at Queen’s University, Hared says most of his peers have no idea what he’s been up to in Russia. Humble to the core, he says he’d like to keep it that way. In Somalia, however, he’s become something of a minor celebrity — the Facebook friend requests don’t stop. Hared even features prominently in a documentary about the Somali bandy team called Trevligt Folk (or “Nice People” in English) currently playing in Swedish cinemas.
Hared dreams of being able to help rebuild the country his parents fled, as a development worker, and plans to take his first trip to Somalia this summer. He’ll also be front and centre on the ice for the 36th Bandy World Championship in 2016.
“Obviously, a championship is out of the question, but we’d love to win a game next year,” he says.
“I want people to realize that despite the war, good things do happen in Somalia.”
BANDY AT A GLANCE
A bright pink ball replaces a puck in this fast-paced sport, usually played outdoors on ice the size of a soccer field (about four times the size of an NHL rink). Teams field 10 players and a stickless goalkeeper who has to use his body and gloved hands to stop balls travelling upwards of 150 km/h from entering a net 2.1 metres high and 3.5 metres wide — more than three times the size of those used by the NHL. Players use hooked sticks and usually play two halves of 45 minutes each. Rules are similar to ice hockey, though most physical contact is banned.
Bandy might seem obscure, but hundreds of thousands of amateurs play in Russia and Nordic nations. Championship games in Russian and Swedish leagues can attract tens of thousands of spectators, and players can even net six-figure salaries.
Bandy’s rules were formalized in Britain in the late 19th century. As hockey spread across North America in the same period, bandy took root in Eastern Europe. It quickly became a national sport in Russia, where it’s sometimes known as “Russian hockey” (as opposed to “Canadian hockey”). Our version of hockey only took off in Russia in the mid 20th century. Soviet athletes soon excelled at the sport, thanks to their years playing on bandy’s oversized rinks.
Bandy was a demonstration sport in the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway. Russia had lobbied to have it included in the 2014 Sochi Games, but their bid failed because too few nations actually play the sport.
Source: The Star