Johnny Oduya visited Kenya in July to settle some business, play some hockey and reconnect with his African roots.
The 40-year-old former NHL defenseman was born and raised in Sweden. He returned to his late father’s small village in the east African country for the first time in more than 30 years, unsure of what to expect.
Oduya wanted to explore his family history, which he never had time to do when he won the Stanley Cup twice with the Chicago Blackhawks (2013, 2015) and a silver medal at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, and played over 850 regular season games and 106 Stanley Cup Playoff games between 2006 and 2018.
“I wondered how it was going to be after so long and if I was going to feel like I belonged in this place,” he said. It felt very natural in many ways, even though I haven’t been part of that culture for most of my life. I grew up with my mother in Sweden, so I’m very “Swedish”. »
Oduya adopted Kenya, and the ice hockey and roller hockey community welcomed him with open arms. He made his second visit to Nairobi two years ago to spend time with the Ice Lions of Kenya, the only organized ice hockey team in the country.
Oduya’s visits have also been made to promote Atunya, a sportswear brand he founded in Sweden five years ago with the aim of increasing diversity in hockey.
Oduya said he chose the word “Atunya” because it means “lion” or “tireless” among the Luo people in Kenya. He chose Kenyan hockey as a starting point for branding and for his company’s charitable initiatives because of his family ties to the country.
“I want to show a different side of hockey,” he said. It is the most tradition-driven sport, and probably the most segregated sport in the West. I try to open the horizons of hockey, to show that hockey can be more dynamic than it is now. We need to attract different people to the sport to make it grow. »
Atunya presented a photo exhibition and a short documentary about Kenya’s hockey community at the Steinsland Berliner Art Gallery in Stockholm in March. Proceeds from the sale of the photos were donated to hockey programs in Kenya.
“That’s why we want to be successful here,” Oduya said. It’s not just to sell clothes. For me, there is an even more important objective. »
The Ice Lions first caught the attention of the hockey world when they traveled to Canada in 2018 to play their first organized games with Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon.
Since then, several former and current NHL players, including Hockey Hall of Famer Viacheslav Fetisov, have traveled to Nairobi to play with the Ice Lions.
Oduya brought a big bag full of hockey gear donated by Bauer’s division in Sweden on his most recent trip. Him and the Calgary Flames defenseman Oliver Kylingtonanother Swede whose mother is a native of Eritrea, brought new jerseys and inline skates when they visited Nairobi in 2021.
He and Kylington joined the roller hockey players for one of their pick-up games in a huge parking lot.
“I’m not very good at rollerblading,” admitted Oduya. We had a hard time keeping up with them last time. »
Fortunately, Oduya was able to skate with the Ice Lions in July at their small ice rink at the Panari Hotel in Nairobi. The rink was closed during his visit in 2021 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
The former defenseman, who had 190 points (41 goals, 149 assists) in 850 regular season games and 28 points (six goals, 22 assists) in 106 playoff games with the Blackhawks, New Jersey Devils, Atlanta Thrashers, Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars, Ottawa Senators and Philadelphia Flyers, said he was impressed with the Kenyan players on the ice and on the street.
“Their passion, their enthusiasm, their willingness to block shots, to do all the things that I sometimes wish talented young Swedes would do, but not do,” he said.
Tim Colby, a diplomat from Canada who is a coach and general manager of the Ice Lions, said Oduya’s presence has left a lasting mark on his players.
“They see him first and foremost as a professional, a guy who’s been successful at the highest levels and won Cups,” Colby said. They identified with Johnny, not because of the people he came from, but because he is African and a back-to-basics Kenyan. »
Pictures : Kennedy Amungo, Johnny Oduya