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The Azmi Sisters Go Hard in Ball Hockey. Don’t Act So Surprised.

The Azmi Sisters Go Hard in Ball Hockey. Don’t Act So Surprised.


MISSISSAUGA, Ontario — The six Azmi sisters are a starting lineup unto themselves.

They could be seen as ball hockey’s answer to the Sutter family, which sent six brothers to the N.H.L. But these hijab-wearing Muslim players in the summer league of the Toronto Women’s Ball Hockey Association — Asiyah, 25; Nuha, 23; Husnah, 21; Sajidah, 18; Haleemah, 17; and Mubeenah, 14 — are much more than that.

Like Nazem Kadri, who was the first Muslim player to be drafted by the N.H.L.’s Toronto Maple Leafs, the sisters are forcing many sports fans to expand their view of who can go hard to the net.

“People are clearly embracing them,” said Judy Ilcio, who founded the women’s league in 1983. “This truly is the next evolution of who we’ve become in ball hockey.”

The sport is similar to ice hockey — but without the ice and skates. The players in the Toronto women’s league wear helmets, face masks, shin pads, hockey gloves and sneakers as they whack a plastic ball over the concrete floor with a hockey stick. Body checking is illegal, but incidental contact is not.

The Azmi sisters have been featured on the Maple Leafs’ online fan network and were featured in popular videos produced by Canadian Tire during the Winter Olympics. Still, some people are taken aback when they see the Azmis with their hockey sticks in their hijabs.

“A lot of people see religious Muslims who observe, so a lot of them are surprised when they see that you’re actually like everyone else,” Husnah Azmi said.

Even in hot conditions, intensified by the hijabs under their helmets, the Azmi sisters display a love of ball hockey that has endeared them to others in the league and to prominent ice hockey personalities such as Kadri and Hayley Wickenheiser, a four-time Olympic gold medalist.

In one of the Canadian Tire videos, which have the slogan “We All Play For Canada,” Wickenheiser surprises the sisters from the Winter Games in South Korea.

“The sisters embraced a new culture in a way that was unique and authentic to them,” said Eva Salem, Canadian Tire’s vice president of marketing. “We really were trying to find real people who sort of embodied the values of inclusivity, sportsmanship and selflessness.”

The sisters’ influence goes beyond the arena. A local school board asked them to speak at a women’s empowerment conference, and they gave a presentation about their experiences playing hockey as observant Muslim women.

Canada more than one million Muslims, with more than 400,000 living in the Greater Toronto Area. Muslim athletes have typically gravitated to soccer and basketball, but many have started playing ice hockey and ball hockey.

In addition to the six Azmi sisters, there are about 20 other Muslims who play in the Toronto Women’s Ball Hockey Association, which has around 200 players.

“You need people to pave the way, and to show it’s not impossible,” said Kadri, arguably this country’s most famous Muslim athlete. “Now you look at these younger kids, and there’s so much diversity in the sport of hockey, and it’s really fulfilling to see.”

Kadri’s team is a popular one in the Azmi home. The sisters’ bedroom, which they share, is furnished with Maple Leafs collectibles and novelty items, from pillows to bedsheets to trinkets.

The sisters play together on two separate teams within the league: the Red team in the East Division, and the White team in the West. Both are middle of the road clubs in the standings, and only one of the sisters — the 17-year-old Haleemah — ranks in the top 15 in scoring.

But their value goes beyond raw statistics, and that’s why the league made a special accommodation for them early in the season, moving their games a couple of hours later during the Muslim holy month Ramadan, during which the sisters fast until the sun goes down. They also pray five times a day.

Playing when the sun was down meant the sisters could drink water and snack on home-cooked samosas to keep their energy up and prevent dehydration.

“The girls asked, and I didn’t think twice about doing it,” Beth Brotherstone, the league president, said. “They love to play the game, they have a great attitude, they’re awesome people and represent the community very well.”

The Azmi family also includes three brothers — Yusef, 29; Salih, 28; and Tayyib, 15 — who grew up playing ice hockey. The sisters also played soccer, volleyball and basketball. They learned how to skate but, as they shared during their surprise talk with Wickenheiser, they had one problem: They didn’t know how to stop, they admitted with giggles.

Their parents, Shaheen and Fara, could not afford to suit them all up for ice hockey, but they could afford the $180 registration fee in ball hockey.

Ice hockey was their father’s love. Shaheen Azmi, who is from Pakistan, still has a vague memory of watching the Maple Leafs win what is still the team’s most recent Stanley Cup championship, in 1967.

His family did not have the money to put him into ice hockey, so he, too, turned his attention to pickup ball hockey in gyms or on the street.

He began working for the Ontario Human Rights Commission after finishing his Ph.D. in social work. Shaheen Azmi was always concerned about racism and discrimination in Canadian society, and he felt that working at the Commission would be a natural fit.

“We knew our rights growing up,” said Asiyah Azmi, who works as a legal assistant.

And as athletes, the young women are winning respect for their commitment to the game.

“They’re sweet,” said Sue Smith, one of their opponents. “They know what they’re doing, and they have tons of energy. You think, culturally, they aren’t going to be fast, but they break that barrier completely.”

Another opponent, Michelle Rosenberg, recalled her stunned reaction the first time she was in the same dressing room with five of the sisters, during a charity tournament. Rosenberg admitted she had a preconceived notion that Muslim women were supposed to be solemn, conservative and deferential.

“They came bursting in and started talking all at once and arguing with one another,” Rosenberg said. “I thought, this doesn’t seem right. But if they were five white young women, no one would look the other way.”

Rosenberg was also in for a surprise on the floor, because the sisters had honed their skills — and weren’t the least bit deferential — on the street and in their Toronto driveway.

“That was another thing that made us want to improve, to represent Muslim women in a better light and show that we were capable of being competitors,” said Husnah Azmi, who is working toward a master’s degree in environmental applied science and management.

Social media is not as welcoming as their opponents on the floors have come to be, but the sisters laugh off some of the comments.

“They told us to go back where we came from,” Nuha Azmi said, as an example. “But we’re not immigrants. We were born here. But we’re not angry. It’s coming from a place where they don’t know better.”

The arena is their protected zone. When the six Azmi women arrive en masse, usually talking up a storm and carrying on like, well, sisters, everyone is instantly aware of their presence.

“Everybody here just refers to them as the girls, or the sisters,” said Brotherstone, the league president. “I just call them my rock stars.”



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