Hackney People: Karim Kerbouche

Meet the resident who founded the national Algerian hockey team

"ON my 12th birthday my mum asked me if I wanted to do something special,” says Karim Kerbouche. Adding: “I didn’t know a thing about ice hockey, only that I’d played it on my Sega Mega Drive and the players got to bash each other about. So I asked to go and see the Lee Valley Lions play. I was hooked from then on.” 

So much so, in fact, that the Hackney resident, who has dual British/Algerian nationality, ended up founding Algeria’s first ever national team.

Back then, however, all the young Karim knew was that he wanted to get on the ice himself. He says: “I started playing at Sobell Leisure Centre in Islington. The equipment was expensive and we didn’t have much money so I had to get it bit by bit.”

But that didn’t deter him. After a couple of years he started to take part in more organised hockey with Haringey in the English Junior Leagues. He travelled around the country, playing at different rinks, while also studying sport and leisure at college.

Karim continues: “By my 20s I just played for fun, but I started to think about how popular football was in Algeria, and how fun it would be to create a similar excitement around ice hockey there. I was realistic, I knew an ice hockey team wouldn’t be as popular as the national football team in a Saharan country, but ice hockey is big in the Gulf. Dubai, for instance has great ice hockey facilities. So why not in Algeria?”

He began looking for other Algerian ice hockey players. Karim says: “To start with, it just involved trawling through hockey databases online in my spare time, looking for players around the world who had names like mine and who might be Algerian.” 

When he found one, he would e-mail the club, asking them to put him in touch with their player. “The French leagues were a good source, because Algeria was a French colony. Still, players would often write back and say, ‘sorry, I’m Moroccan’. But when I did find Algerian players I explained my vision of an Algerian team and they were all enthusiastic about representing their country of origin. They’d all had the idea, but none of them had thought it was possible,” he says.

The Algerian team Karim ended up with included players living in France, Canada, Belgium, and the UK. But Karim had no money to bring them together. He explains: “I contacted the most established Arab hockey team, in the United Arab Emirates, and suggested the idea of an Arab cup. They flew me out to Abu Dhabi to discuss it, all expenses paid.”

Back in London, Karim contacted all his players to tell them they had been fully funded to compete in the tournament. 

He recalls: “I flew them all to London and put them up in my friend’s house, 10 to a room. It was the first time we had met in the flesh. We had a week to practise together before flying out to Abu Dhabi to compete. I had to scrabble together some rink time for us.”

The Arab Cup tournament was ‘a rush’ and the team was treated like VIPs during their stay. More importantly, out on the ice Karim scored Algeria’s first ever goal, against Morocco. 

He says: “It was one of the best things in my life. I was so proud and it made all the hard work worth it.”

The momentum didn’t stop when he returned home, and signed for the first team he ever watched as a 12-year-old: the Lee Valley Lions. 

He describes his on-going work to develop the Algerian team as ‘challenging’. Karim adds: “The Government doesn’t really understand what we’re trying to do, but the public are a different story: we have over 120,000 followers on Facebook.”

Today, he works for leisure centre provider GLL and, in a couple of weeks, is taking the Algerian ice hockey team to the first ever African Club Cup tournament in Morocco. 

He says: “I want to build the membership within Algeria, so we have more players from inside the country instead of expats.” 

Are his family proud? “They’re a bit bemused,” he laughs, adding: “It’s still hard for people to get their head round the concept of Algerian ice hockey. We get a lot of ‘Cool Runnings’ jokes…”