Mozambican kids a hit with NHL stars

By Scott Cruickshank
Updated: July 11, 2008

CALGARY — To have hockey-playing giants show up in their villages must have been stunning for kids in Mozambique.

Last month’s encounters were no less eye-opening for said giants — Robyn Regehr and Zdeno Chara.

The National Hockey League players’ one-week tour through the nation on Africa’s southeast coast — on behalf of Right To Play (motto: “Creating a healthier and safer world for children through the power of sport and play”) — provided more than a few stunning moments.

“Zdeno and I got a kick out of one time,” Regehr, the hard-rock defender of the Calgary Flames, was saying Wednesday from his off-season home in Saskatchewan.

“We were describing ice hockey and asking who knew about ice hockey. There was this one kid who stood up and actually made a motion like a slapshot. We were pretty impressed with that. That was probably the only one (who knew hockey) out of the 2,500 kids we saw on the trip.

“It’s pretty difficult to describe hockey to Africans who have rarely seen ice or anything like that, so it was a challenge.”

For Regehr and Chara, their profile as NHL stars carried little weight.

However, as “athlete ambassadors” — their Right To Play titles — they packed a powerful punch for locals.

“In one community there were about 400 kids,” says Regehr, 28. “It was an absolute mob scene — people just hanging off Zdeno. I was a little worried about him — he’d just had surgery on his shoulder — but he seemed to be faring OK. And they were hanging off my arms.

“I don’t think they’d seen a lot of white people. It was all new to them. I actually felt something funny, so I looked down and this kid was licking my forearm. It’s very hard to describe the scene, there was just so much going on.”

According to the humanitarian organization’s website: “Right To Play programs target the most marginalized, including girls, the disabled, children affected by HIV and AIDS, street children, former child combatants and refugees.”

Based in the Mozambican capital of Maputo, the gang made daily drives to rural schools and communities.

“There were some real highlights,” says Regehr. “The first one had to be interacting with the kids. That was a lot of fun. We had Right To Play staff that helped us out with the language barriers, so that was nice. We got a chance to see how much fun the kids were having — how much they were learning, too, with some of the educational games. That was the first highlight.

“The second was talking to the coaches who were involved in Right To Play. They’re really amazing people. They were the ones who were trained to teach the kids the games. And they don’t do it for anything other than to help out.”

The same goes for Regehr and Chara, who were heartened to see their efforts take immediate hold.

“Which makes it easier to talk about the program and fund-raise,” says Regehr, “because we know it’s working — we’ve seen it work.”

Regehr says he was never apprehensive about travelling to Mozambique, despite its proximity to Zimbabwe.

In fact, the only scheduling wrinkle involved his wife Christina, who, because of her pregnancy (she’s due in late October), couldn’t get some of the pre-trip shots. With the risk of malaria, she stayed home.

And there was one early-journey snag.

When the Right To Play crew landed in Maputo, two cameramen, who were supposed to shoot footage for the NHL, weren’t allowed to bring their gear into the country.

“Because the customs people at the airport thought they were going to sell it,” explains Regehr. “So I don’t know if the documentary will ever be made because they had to rent cameras . . . and never got their own stuff. That was a real low point on the trip because I don’t think we’ll be able to show people exactly what we were doing.

“A major, major hiccup.”

The journey was mostly great, though, including the opportunity to get to know better Chara, the six-foot-nine defenceman of the Boston Bruins.

It’s one thing for Andrew Ference and Steve Montador to march off to Tanzania last summer’s Right To Play mission — they were pals, after all — but quite another to join forces with a stranger.

Well, not quite a stranger. But an unknown peer.

“I’d heard a few things from Chuck Kobasew and Andrew Ference,” Regehr says of Chara, who, after the tour, stayed in Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. “I’d heard he was an extremely, extremely serious guy. But I saw that he had a pretty good sense of humour and he was also extremely disciplined.

“We were up early in the mornings because of the time change . . . and he was always out there running. We ran stairs a couple times in our hotel. He was very professional, but, yeah, I had a really good trip with him.”