Color of Hockey: Oduya connects to family roots to breed the game in Kenya

William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog since 2012. Douglas joined NHL.com in 2019 and writes about people of color in sports. Today he portrays retired NHL defenseman Johnny Oduya, who returned to his late father’s homeland of Kenya in July during a visit to promote hockey in the East African country.

Johnny Oduya visited Kenya in July to do business, play a little hockey and reconnect with his African roots.

The 40-year-old retired NHL defenseman was born and raised in Sweden. He returned to his late father’s village in the East African nation’s constituency of Karachuonyo for the first time in more than 30 years, not knowing what to expect.

Oduya wanted to explore his family history, which he didn’t have time to do as he won two Stanley Cups (2013, 2015), a silver medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and played 850 regular seasons and 106 with the Chicago Blackhawks Playoff games from 2006-18.

“It was a little, ‘How will it be after so long, are you going to feel things that feel like a part of you?'” he said. “It felt very natural in a lot of ways, even though I haven’t been a part of the culture for most of my life. I grew up with my mother in Sweden and I’m very ‘Swedish’ in that way.”

Oduya embraced Kenya and the country’s ice and roller hockey community welcomed him with open arms. He was visiting Nairobi for the second time in two years to spend time with the Kenya Ice Lions. the nation’s only organized ice hockey team.

Oduya’s visits were also related to promoting Atunya, a sportswear brand he founded in Sweden about five years ago with the aim of increasing diversity in ice hockey.

Oduya said he chose the word “Atunya” because among Kenya’s Luo tribe it means lion or implacable. Due to his family ties to the country, he chose Kenyan ice hockey as the starting point for the brand’s image and charitable endeavors.

“I want to show hockey in a different way,” he said. “It’s the most traditional sport and probably the most segregated sport that we have in the western world as well. I’m trying to open this space. That can be more dynamic than what it is. We need that to attract different types of people to the sport and grow it.”

Atunya hosted a photo exhibition and short documentary about Kenya’s ice hockey community at the Steinsland Berliner gallery in Stockholm in March. Proceeds from the sale of the prints went to Kenya Hockey.

“That’s why we want to succeed with all this,” Oduya said. “Not so much for selling clothes. To me, there is a greater purpose to it.”

The Ice Lions first caught the attention of the hockey world when they were flown to Canada in 2018 and played their first organized games with them Sydney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon.

Since then, current and former NHL players, from Hockey Hall of Famer Viacheslav Fetisov to Bernie Saunders, have traveled to Nairobi to play with the Ice Lions.

On his most recent trip, Oduya brought a large bag full of ice hockey equipment provided by Bauer Sweden. He and the Calgary Flames defenseman Oliver Kylington, a fellow Swede whose mother is from EretriaShe donated new jerseys and skates during her visit to Nairobi in 2021.

He and Killington joined the hockey players for one of their regular weekend pickup games in a large parking lot.

“I’m not a big inline guy,” Oduya said. “Last time we had a hard time keeping up.”

Oduya was happily skating with the Ice Lions on their small rink at the Panari Hotel in Nairobi in July. The rink was closed during his 2021 visit due to coronavirus concerns.

The retired defenseman who has 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 and Dallas Stars , Ottawa Senators and Philadelphia Flyers said he was impressed with the Kenyan players on the ice and street.

“The passion, the drive, the willingness to get down, block shots, do the crazy things that I sometimes wish kids of Swedish ability would do but don’t want to do,” he said.

Tim Colby, a Canadian diplomat, coach and general manager of the Ice Lions, said Oduya’s presence left a lasting impression on his players.

“They see him first and foremost as a professional, as a man who has competed at the highest level and won trophies,” said Colby. “They didn’t refer to Johnny by the tribe he came from, but as an African and a Kenyan coming back.”

Photos: Kennedy Amungo, Johnny Oduya

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