GTHL official Abu Hafejee’s work in stripes and on the pavement
In the middle of the intensity of the OHL Cup – players focused, scouts in black coats and scribbling notes – GTHL official Abu Hafejee cuts a striking contrast.
Abu is calm, with a constant smile, shaking hands with fellow officials, all the time radiating an infectious energy that follows him wherever he goes.
He is acutely aware of the magnitude of this tournament, of the dreams that the players and fellow officials have of moving up the hockey ranks. However, Abu has his own goals that exist outside of Scotiabank Pond. Abu sits on the board of One Brotherhood and Markham Lawrence Community United, two Scarborough-based not for-profits that were in the midst of organizing their third annual toy drive during Eid, a Muslim holiday at the end of Ramadan, for kids across the Greater Toronto Area.
Abu has, alongside the Scarborough Hockey Association (SHA) and the GTHL, spearheaded and coordinated the First Shift program for his community, easing the barriers of entry and affording kids in his neighborhood the chance to experience ice hockey for the first time.
All of this is alongside a full-time construction job in addition to a teaching position at George Brown College. During Ramadan, Abu’s schedule includes officiating, skating, organizing, and coordinating while fasting and praying from dawn to sunset.
Abu is an East-Ender born and raised, growing up at Scarborough Gardens and Don Montgomery arena, playing for the Scarborough Sabres and Ice Raiders in his youth. Always hanging at the rink, he eventually started timekeeping games for $5 cash.
One day, Abu recalls being approached by GTHL Supervisor Rob Brown to give officiating a try. With that, he did, eventually working his way up the ranks just like a hockey player – starting with house league, moving onto Select, and eventually the competitive ‘AA’ and ‘AAA’ levels.
When Abu wasn’t at the rink, he was at the Abu Bakr Mosque working alongside his late father Saleh, who founded the Scarborough Muslim Ball Hockey Association (SMBHA).
“I was voluntold,” Abu chuckled. “We used to store the nets and goalie equipment at my house in my garage. Me and my brother would stick our hands out the window and hold the net on top of the van.”
Abu and his brother Mohammed had other interests growing up. The unappealing early start times on weekends that came with the SMBHA didn’t appeal in their teenage years, but during that time, the SMBHA only grew and grew. In 2013, the city built an asphalt hockey court at nearby Cornell Park, not just for the SMBHA but the community as well. By 2021, enrollment was well over 150 kids, along with a newly established girls division.
These days Abu is officially the Vice President of the SMBHA. However, that title doesn’t do the work he puts forth justice.
“I’m the coordinator, like logistics,” Abu explained. “We need balls, new jerseys and sticks, food, and Gatorade. From A to Z – it’s ‘okay Abu, get it done.’”
Even years after its inception, he still works alongside his brother and their friends. All of who have started young families of their own, making organizing and coordinating the league that much easier, affording them the opportunity to introduce ball hockey to their own kids.
Abu’s tireless work has allowed kids to take the skills they’ve learned in the gym and on the pavement, to then try it out on the ice. The recent First Shift program, working alongside the GTHL and in tandem with SHA, featured 100 kids from the SMBHA, providing them with equipment and ice time to further hone their skills. When the initial six weeks were up, Abu turned to the SHA’s President Ed Wahl and George Rennie, General Manager of the SHA’s House League – two hockey mentors he had known his whole life – and asked if there was anything more they could do.
From there, Ed and George extended the ice time to 13 weeks and helped more than 40 kids graduate into their house league program without a required expense. The program received $10,000 in funding from the GTHL Legacy Fund and Jumpstart Playmakers Fund, with the SHA covering the remaining costs.
This is only the beginning, as Abu shared the plan is to continue expanding and growing, to give more kids the opportunity to experience the game and maybe, go even further than the previous generations could have ever imagined.
In the summer of 2022, the Stanley Cup made a surprise visit at the Abu Bakr Mosque while the kids received their First Shift certifications of completion. This was shortly after current Calgary Flame Nazem Kadri brought the Cup to a mosque in London, moments that Abu says go beyond a cool photo opportunity.
“It makes it more real. It might be a far goal, but it is a goal. It is attainable if you really chase it,” Abu said. “There’s a realistic pathway from playing in Cornell Park to the NHL.”
Recently at the rink, Abu was getting off the ice post-game when he saw a parent waiting for him. Expecting a reprimand for a missed call, he was pleasantly surprised when the parent shared how happy his son was to see an official – another Muslim on the ice – said Salam Alaikum to him during the game. It was a simple gesture that made the kid feel welcome, and another sign for Abu to continue his work on the ice and in the community with a smile every day.