Ainslie Bien-Aime is getting slower, and he's not happy about it.
The captain of Haiti's national ball hockey team finds himself physically and metaphorically looking over his shoulder during games and seeing younger players gaining on him.
"During the world championships, it's a full week and a minimum of eight games," said Bien-Aime, a 47-year-old resident of Saint Hubert, Quebec. "After the fourth or fifth game, my body doesn't recuperate as well as the young guys. And seeing kids that back in the day I would outrun outrunning me, mentally it's disturbing."
Bien-Aime said he's considering hanging up his sneakers, satisfied with the memory that he helped lead Haiti to an improbable International Street and Ball Hockey Federation World Championship in Pool B in 2015 -- but, he said with a laugh, maybe not until after the 2021 ISBHF World Ball Hockey Championship in Brandon, Manitoba.
"The guys are saying if I'm still in shape and I can run that I should be team captain again," he said. "I didn't say no, I didn't say yes."
Bien-Aime wants to relive the feeling of 2015 that's a source of pride for his team and for Haiti, a Caribbean island nation that's still recovering from a devastating earthquake in 2010.
"This was worldwide news when we did this," said Georges Laraque, a former NHL forward who co-coached the Haitian team in its first international competition. "People were so proud because Haiti doesn't have much to celebrate with everything going on, but that was their victory."
Bien-Aime reflects on the Haiti team's experience and his personal hockey journey in "Hockey 24," a documentary that profiles a day in the life of the game through footage provided largely by Canadians and supplemented by professional film crews.
More than 455,000 viewers watched the documentary when Sportsnet and Sportsnet Now aired it in Canada last month. "Hockey 24," presented by Scotiabank and produced by the Mark Agency in association with Sportsnet, the NHL and Hot Docs, can be viewed worldwide for free through June 30 on the Hot Docs website.
Bien-Aime said the 2015 championship reaffirmed his belief that that hockey is truly a sport for everyone, a feeling that sometimes wavered after he began playing the game at age 4.
"When I would arrive at the arena, people would look at me, like, 'A black person that plays hockey?" he said in the documentary. "My first response was to lower my head and try to enter the locker room as quickly as possible, so they don't see me. One element of my equipment would allow me to create a barrier from all the injustice I would receive. When I put my helmet on, I became like Batman, like Spider-Man. I became a superhero."
The occasional odd looks or racist comments lessened after Team Haiti, comprised mostly of Haitian-Canadians, defeated the Cayman Islands 4-2 at the ISBHF World Championship in Zug, Switzerland, in June 2015. Bien-Aime said that victory continues to inspire black children and young adults in the Montreal area to play ball or street hockey -- and to try ice hockey.
"Playing ball hockey is not as expensive as playing ice hockey," Bien-Aime said, "so for those families being introduced to hockey, ball hockey is a good transition to eventually go to ice hockey."
Ball hockey, also called street hockey or dek hockey, is played in more than 60 countries. Nearly 40 countries belong to the ISBHF, a Prague-based organization that has hosted international competitions since 1995 and wants to make ball hockey a Summer Olympics sport.
Several NHL teams use ball hockey as a way to introduce young people to ice hockey, entice them to become NHL fans and perhaps take their game to the ice. The Washington Capitals purchased street hockey equipment for all the District's public schools and have built or refurbished 11 street hockey rinks in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.
In February, the Detroit Red Wings unveiled "Learn, Play, Score," an initiative that aims to expose hockey to more than 30,000 young people in the city of Detroit through street hockey at 79 schools, 12 parks and recreation centers by using hockey as an educational tool in school, as well as by providing scholarships for hockey programs and open skate sessions at Little Caesars Arena.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have programs to provide students grades 3-5 with Lightning-logoed street hockey sticks and balls. The goal is to distribute 100,000 in five years and increase the Tampa-area registration of youth players (7-13 years old) in USA Hockey.
The Arizona Coyotes have developed a street hockey physical education curriculum to reach 700 schools and more than 500,000 students.
Haiti's ball hockey exploits inspired the formation of a Haitian ice hockey team that played a game in 2016 against a team from Lebanon, Laraque said.
"We were so surprised that there were so many black Haitian and black African people playing the game," said Bien-Aime, who played ball and ice hockey at least three times a week before rinks were closed due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. "The feedback we were getting was, 'We're so happy that you guys won that championship, it gives us a goal."
Bien-Aime hoped that Haiti would become a perennial ball hockey power on the world stage. But like many title-winning teams, Haiti experienced a championship hangover, and moving up to the ISBHF's top pool made it even tougher. By 2019, Haiti was ranked 12th, at the bottom of the ISBHF A Pool.
"The fact that we won in 2015, people felt, 'We don't need to practice as much, we're in shape, everybody's scared of us, we'll just run it through and get to the finals,'" he said. "That wasn't the right mindset from the get-go."
Now Bien-Aime is looking ahead to the 2021 world championship in Manitoba with redemption on his mind -- body willing.
"Even though I'm old, I'm still captain," he said. "Physically, I know it's time, but I'm not ready yet."
Photos courtesy: Yanissa Grand-Pierre and Hockey 24