SURREY — Talk to Yousuf Zafar and chances are you’ll come away a fan.
If his bright eyes and energy don’t win you over, then his matter-of-fact conversation will. The nine-year-old seems incapable of braggadocio or stretching the truth, and he does what a lot of us don’t do – he listens.
On Saturday at the Surrey Sports and Leisure Complex in Fleetwood, Yousuf was one happy little dude. He was playing – for the first time in his young life – in a hockey tournament. The Grade 3 Cambridge Elementary student had prepared for this day for a long time. Twenty-two weeks to be exact – practising, scrimmaging and learning as much as possible.
At the rink in Fleetwood, Yousuf’s team, the Surrey Stingrays, would play three games. Between games two and three, he talked about the experience and about all the friends he’d made, including his “best” friend, a young boy sitting nearby.
(Pictured: Brandon Carinha prepping in the dressing room with hs dad John.)
He also talked about his shot at glory during one of the morning’s games.
“I’m shocked. I almost scored today!”
And he talked about one day playing in the NHL.
There were nine teams in the tournament, each rostered with players as keen as Yousuf. Some were younger, some were older, some were bigger and some were smaller.
But they all shared one similar trait – each and every one of them was autistic.
This was the second annual CAN (Canucks Autism Network) Hockey Tournament.
CAN director of programming Stephanie Jull explained how it all came to be – how Vancouver Canucks’ co-owner Paulo Aqualini has a son who, at 19 months, was diagnosed with autism, how he wanted to support other families living with the condition, and how he had a vision of making hockey more accessible.
“These kids don’t have the same opportunities in sports,” Jull said. “This gives our kids the same type of experiences their peers have. To play on a team, to score goals, to get a team T-shirt, to hang out with new friends.”
Just a few feet from Yousuf sat teammate Brandon Carinha, an 11-year-old Grade 6 student who was busy chowing down on popcorn. Like every member of the Stingrays, a team that didn’t exist until a year ago, Brandon had never played hockey before the team was formed.
Brandon also plays soccer, but he said he prefers hockey because he “likes face-offs and scoring goals.” He rattled off the names of current Canuck players faster than a seasoned sports writer, and he said his biggest thrill of the day was meeting Fin, the Canucks mascot.
(Pictured: Yousuf Zafar prepping in the dressing room with his mom.)
Carinha’s dad John is the team manager, and he had a lot of great things to say about the Canucks Autism Network (online at Canucksautism.ca).
“What CAN offers is opportunity. And that opportunity allows their staff to unlock the magic that each of these kids have… through sport and recreation, these kids are able to really exude their strengths.”
Currently, you don’t need to be a resident of Surrey to be a part of the Stingrays. Moreover, because the tournament is still in its infancy, age restrictions are somewhat lax. Kids as young as eight and as old as 20-something play on the same team, according to Jull.
All of that is expected to change in time, as the tournament grows and more players, more parents, more supporters, and more sponsors come on board.
But on this day, the big game – the game that would pit the two Lower Mainland forces against one another in a battle of local supremacy – was about to begin. It was the Surrey Stingrays versus the Vancouver Orcas, and everyone was ready.
Yousuf’s “best friend” Ryan Laface sounded like a WWE wrestler.
“We’re off to an O-and-two start, but that doesn’t mean we can’t win a medal. I’ll be there, you’ll be there…tonight!”
Yousuf said he knew his team would win, adding, somewhat cryptically, “I’ve beaten Orcas before.”
In the end, the 8-8 final was a fitting conclusion. Lots of kids played, lots of kids scored, and lots of kids had some amazing memories to take home with them on World Autism Awareness Day.