EDMONTON, AB - Zeyad Almahamed was laced up in a pair of hockey skates with a stick in hand for the first time during an Introduction to Hockey session at the Downtown Community Arena on February 7.
The 13-year-old took part in the session, which was designed to introduce youth to the sport of hockey, alongside 30 more participants from the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.
"We were playing, practicing, and doing some tricks," Zeyad said of his first hockey experience after arriving in Canada in 2016. "At the end, we played a game versus each other. It felt so nice and so exciting."
Fast forward to February 19, Hockey Is For Everyone night at Rogers Place, and Zeyad was having his name called by the public announcer and lining up on the blueline alongside future heroes Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Oscar Klefbom.
"I felt scared, shy, and excited at the same time," he admitted. "I want to play all my life now."
Video: AROUND THE RINK | Hockey is for Everyone
Zeyad was a part of a diverse group of six participants called to the ice for the national anthem between the Oilers and Arizona Coyotes as part of Hockey Is For Everyone night, a league-wide initiative that uses the game of hockey and the League's global influence to foster more inclusive communities and drive social change.
Among those included in the ceremony were centre Spencer Tomc from the Edmonton Adaptive Sports Association Storm sledge hockey team, 23-year-old Brieann Baldock from the Edmonton SeeHawks and the Alberta Sports and Recreation Association for the Blind, and other individuals representative of the diversity that makes up the hockey community.
A further 450 tickets to the game were also donated to a diverse number of groups to give people who might not otherwise be able to attend a game, the opportunity to do so, some for even the very first time.
Oilers players once again took to the ice for warm-ups with pride tape woven around their stick blades to show support for the LGBTQ community. The colourful tape created in Edmonton symbolizes inclusiveness in sport, with the sticks being auctioned off in the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation online charity auction in support of the You Can Play Project helping fight off homophobia in sport.
"If you can play, you can play," Kristopher Wells, creator of pride tape with Jeff McLean, said. "Your sexual orientation or your gender identity doesn't need to be your biggest barrier in life - it can be your greatest asset to achieve your hopes and dreams.
"Seeing a player step on the ice with their stick covered in pride tape sends that message of inclusion and hope to that young teenager out there who's maybe wondering if hockey can be their future."
Supported by all 31 NHL teams, Hockey Is For Everyone extends far beyond the individual game night and is a year-round campaign set on opening doors for all players, coaches, athletes and fans who are passionate about hockey regardless of their race, religion, skin color, gender, ability, sexual orientation or socio-economic status.
The Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation continued its commitment to embrace inclusivity as they hosted Inner City High School students for an annual luncheon at Rogers Place in February, and sponsored three sledge hockey teams from the Edmonton Adaptive Sports Association to attend and compete at the NHL Sled Classic in Chicago earlier this month.
Video: ARI@EDM: Oilers host Hockey Is For Everyone night
Oilers forward Jujhar Khaira, once again serving as Oilers Ambassador for Hockey Is For Everyone this season, had the opportunity to visit with India's National Women's Hockey Team at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary to help inspire the next generation of women's hockey.
"This is a dream of every player - to become NHL players," head coach Abdul Hakim said. "They got an opportunity to see how they do the exercises and the drills they're doing… so it's a big opportunity for the girls and we are very happy."
The challenge of playing hockey in India begins with access to a proper ice surface.
"In India we had one international-standard ice hockey rink, but it was totally shut down because of the expenses," Hakim continued. "Here they get the opportunity to play on international-standard ice, so it's amazing."
Challenging the status quo is a continuous battle in the fight to prove that hockey really is for everyone.
"Breaking barriers, as we are doing, it's really important for us to [play] at such a level," forward Diskit Chhonzom Agmo said. "We never give up, no matter what the hurdles and barriers are, we always look forward to what's in our hands."
Hockey Is For Everyone is just a small piece of the larger puzzle of making the sport more accessible and inclusive for all communities, helping break down one barrier at a time.