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Hockey is wildly popular in Thorncliffe Park, but organizers struggle to find space for kids to play

Ball hockey was a central part of life growing up in Thorncliffe Park for Huzaifa Jogiat and his friends. They’d bring out their sticks and use any space they could find to play, including hallways or parking lots. 

“Our parents couldn’t afford ice hockey because they were all new immigrants, so we just stuck to ball hockey,” he said.

As Jogiat got older, he started playing in leagues and tournaments around the city. Now in his 20s, Jogiat’s a university graduate working in public health. But he hasn’t left Thorncliffe Park.

The neighbourhood is known for its high population of new immigrants and children. In Thorncliffe, 27 per cent of the population are children aged 14 and under, which amounts to about 5,600 youth. That’s close to double the percentage of kids in the city’s overall population, which is 15 per cent .

Two years ago, Jogiat and co-founder Anas Memon decided it was time to pay forward the friendship and community they got from playing ball hockey. That’s why Jogita says he created the Thorncliffe Ball Hockey League for local kids. 

“We’ve seen the need to introduce the program to the younger generation,” he said.

The need for funding and the lack of public recreational space for sport in a community teeming with kids has made that difficult, Jogiat says.

The lack of space is compounded by how densely packed the neighbourhood is. According to the city of Toronto’s neighbourhood profile of Thorncliffe Park, the population density is 6,787 people per square kilometre, more than double Toronto’s average of 4,457 per square kilometre. 

There’s only one small community centre in the neighbourhood that has a single gym inside and a small park behind it. Kids in Thorncliffe are often seen playing in hallways or outside apartment buildings. But Jogiat says the nearby Angela James Arena could remain open for ball hockey in the warmer months, if the city would allow it. 

“There isn’t much [space] in the summertime, we were playing at the local tennis court. There’s no facility to play hockey in our area besides parking lots,” he said. 

Jogiat and Memon were only able to take the league indoors and have it run during the winter six months ago, when their local mosque covered the cost of a permit for a local gym. However, Jogiat and neighbourhood community organizations told CBC Toronto that more permanent solutions and spaces are needed to facilitate sports programming for Thorncliffe’s young population.

Sports brings kids together and helps them connect to their new home in Canada — and for new Canadians growing up in Thorncliffe, Jogiat says that’s central to their wellbeing. 

Space missing for youth sports

Jogiat’s league has about 100 kids signed up from ages four to 16. On Saturday, several girls were at the local high school, Marc Garneau Collegiate, to play. Among them was seven-year-old Aria Daya.

“When I play with my friends, I always pass and it’s fun,” she said. 

Her mother Natasha Daya told CBC Toronto she’s a TDSB teacher who grew up in Thorncliffe Park after immigrating to Canada. “It’s really nice to bring our children to a program that represents unity, community and diversity with sports… and be exposed to an activity that we didn’t have growing up,” she said. 

A group of boys standing on a field
The Thorncliffe Ball Hockey League’s boys team is pictured at a tournament last summer. Co-founder Huzaifa Jogiat says it’s been tough to find enough space for the kids for play in Thorncliffe. (Submitted by Huzaifa Jogiat)

Daya said she particularly appreciates that the league champions Muslim girls by encouraging them to play hockey and normalizing their participation.

“People of colour are not very represented, specifically in hockey,” she said. In Thorncliffe, “we can see that people from different backgrounds… are being given these opportunities for their children.”

Space for sports in Thorncliffe is the equivalent of “a couple of rooms,” said Ahmed Hussein, the CEO of The Neighbourhood Group (TNO), a community organization in the area.

“It’s one of the smallest in the city, if not the smallest,” he said. “With all that, it’s really important to give youth an opportunity to access recreation.”

CBC Toronto is spending time in the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood as part of our Communities in Focus initiative. Our goal is to hear your stories about this unique neighbourhood and share them with the rest of the city. 

To stay up to date and engage with our latest stories about Thorncliffe and Flemingdon Park, subscribe to our Thorncliffe Park WhatsApp Channel

Youth who are involved in programming have a chance to build character and contribute to their communities, Hussein said. TNO runs its own ice hockey league, relying on donations to cover expenses.

He said he’s concerned that permit costs are the same across the city, regardless if the neighbourhood is low income like Thorncliffe. Toronto has designated Thorncliffe a priority neighbourhood due to inequities people face there.

“There should be some level of consideration in terms of ice time costs,” Hussein said.

In response to questions from CBC Toronto about the lack of recreational space in Thorncliffe, a spokesperson for the city said, “Communities centres are built to represent a community which leads us to many different types of community centres with varying amenities.”

The city said residents “often find” they use multiple centres across the city to meet their needs. Toronto offers free programing and subsidies for residents and the city says Thorncliffe Park has some “reduced permitting.”

Child playing hockey
A child is shown participating in ice hockey run by The Neighbourhood Group. The organization says they want the city to partner with them and other organizations to create more space for sports in Thorncliffe Park. (Submitted by The Neighbourhood Group)

As for Angela James Arena, the city says the rink isn’t used for recreational programming outside of skating season because it doesn’t have adequate air conditioning or circulation for long periods of use. But permits can still be taken out there during the warmer months, as well as for the dry pad at the community centre, which the city says is used for ball hockey.

City needs to open up arena: community group

Local ball hockey and ice hockey programs are wildly successful and a testament to the community’s care for each other, said Adil Patel, who runs the TNO hockey program.

A concern that Patel and Jogiat share is confusion over why the local Angela James rink is closed in the spring and summer, when it could be open for ball hockey.

“There’s not much opportunity for the community to utilize those spaces here,” he said.  “All we need… is for the city to open it up and come to some sort of a partnership. We can host the program through the community, but we just need the allocated time and the space.”

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