The Azmi sisters of North York are making a name for themselves on the local sports scene. And “they don’t play meekly.”
The Azmi sisters, from left, Haleemah, 16, Sajidah, 17, Husnah, 20, Asiyah, 24, Nuha, 22, pose for a portrait in June in their family's driveway, where they often play ball hockey. (GALIT RODAN / FOR THE TORONTO STAR)
The automatic doors glide open at the Paul Coffey Arena and nearly half the players on the “red” ball hockey team — five Azmi sisters, ages 16 to 24 — rush in and down a few stairs to a change room.
The other team is warming up on the floor. So are the Azmis’ teammates.
It’s Thursday night in the Toronto Women’s Ball Hockey Association and Asiyah, 24; Nuha, 22; Husnah, 20; Sajidah, 17 and Haleemah, 16, don’t want to be late for the faceoff.
Ball hockey is the Azmis’ sporting passion. As sisters. As athletes. As young Muslim women working to break down stereotypes.
“We really want to grow the sport in the Muslim community,” said Husnah, who is studying environment and sustainability science at Ryerson. “Like, we really want to.”
A fledgling Muslim ball hockey league the sisters once played in died and the Azmis — now suiting up in two leagues, year-round — are hoping to revive it.
But on this night, a new game awaits.
Game jerseys are tugged into place. Helmets slide over hijabs. Gloves on. Sticks in hand. They jog to the floor just in time for the 7 p.m. ball drop.
Then the Azmis run. And run and run and run. There’s a lot of running in ball hockey — one of the sisters’ strengths, even on a hot, humid summer evening inside an old hockey barn.
Haleemah Azmi, 16, takes control of the ball during her game at the Paul Coffey Arena in Mississauga. (GALIT RODAN)
“I love running,” said Haleemah, who, with her siblings, will also compete on a second team at the Ontario Ball Hockey Association Championships Aug. 18-20 in Oshawa.
“When I run, when I get the speed in there, I love to feel the rush of the running.”
The sisters play a strong game using skills acquired during years of organized ball hockey. Quick passing. Shot blocking. No shrinking from body contact when battling along the boards. And they are stealthy, notching turnovers by swiping the orange ball off opponents’ sticks.
The red team wins; fist bumps all around between the Azmis and their teammates. Then the two sides shake hands.
Asiyah Azmi, 24,watches the game from the bench at the Paul Coffey Arena in Mississauga, Thursday, June 29, 2017. (GALIT RODAN)
Having family as teammates is fun and reassuring, said Sajidah — known as Saj.
“It’s just super comforting,” Saj said of strategizing with her sisters.
“We can talk to each other and discuss what the issue is (on the floor). We know each other so well and we can play better together, too. It’s just more fun.”
Michelle Rosenberg is a veteran player in the 34-year-old summer league. She plays against the Azmis’ red team and said she’s “blown away by their skill” and discipline.
“They’re very aggressive on the floor — not aggressive in a nasty way but they play the game fully,” said the 54-year-old. “They don’t play it meekly.”
In the spring, Rosenberg competed on a charity tournament team with the Azmis. She enjoyed the spirited, hard-working siblings so much, she volunteered to coach their “C” division team at provincials.
Amy Davidson, 40, is an Azmi teammate this season. Last year, she played against them, recalling “they’re tough.”
“They’re fast and they’re good and it’s hard to beat a player who’s better than you,” Davidson said.
“They’re quite helpful, they give a lot of advice on the bench and they’re very motivating.”
But how are they with each other? Ever bicker on the bench?
Let’s ask the Azmis.
“Oh ya, a lot,” the chorus of five answered, laughing — and noting any squabbling usually happens when the game’s not going well.
“We can hear our teammates saying, ‘Uh oh, the sisters are arguing,’” said Asiyah, lowering her voice dramatically as her siblings giggled and nodded.
“Then on the ride home, we say ‘OK, next week we have to keep it super-positive.’”
Playing ball hockey has been a family tradition since the children were young.
There are nine Azmi siblings, who all grew up playing ball hockey on the street or in the driveway. The two eldest are sons Yusef, 28, and Salih, 27. Then the roster of five athletic sisters, followed by brother Tayyib, 14, and the youngest sister, Mubeenah, 13.
On Thursday nights, Tayyib and Mubeenah pile into the family’s resilient 2008 van — a 15-seater with the back bench removed and 255,000 kilometres on the speedometer — with their five sisters. Nuha drives. Tayyib, who plays ice hockey at Goulding Park, and Mubeenah, who hopes to join the ball hockey team when she’s older, stand at the arena glass near the benches. They quietly cheer the red team.
The Azmi sisters chat in their Toronto living room. From left, Husnah, 20, Sajidah, 17, Haleemah, 16, Asiyah, 24, and Nuha, 22. (GALIT RODAN)
All the siblings can skate but not all played ice hockey; it was too expensive an option for father Shaheen and mother Fara to manage with a large family. Ball hockey was more practical.
“It’s one of those sports you can play on the street or with your friends just casually and that’s what got us interested originally,” said Asiyah, who still practises on their North York street with her sisters.
It was also Dad’s sport. Shaheen Azmi, who immigrated to Canada from Pakistan as a toddler, was an avid ball hockey player (and remains an ardent Toronto Maple Leafs fan) and encouraged all his children to try the sport. Fara, who arrived in Canada from her native Guyana at 26, supported her children’s healthy, active lifestyles.
Shaheen is the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s director of policy, education, monitoring and outreach. Fara operates an at-home child-care centre.
The sisters’ passion for the game grew in 2012 when a group of mothers from Tayyib’s hockey team invited the three eldest sisters to play in an all-female league. They lost many games that rookie season and by a lot of goals — and eventually, the ice hockey moms drifted away.
“We stuck with it (and) we kept playing,” said Husnah. Soon, Saj and Haleemah joined their sisters for fall and winter seasons.
And the Azmis improved, quickly. That progress was meaningful to the sisters, not just as athletes but as Muslims, to challenge stereotypes and “prove a point,” said Nuha.
“We wanted to get better, we didn’t give up after (losing) 10-0 games,” said Nuha, a fashion design graduate.
“People thought (at first) that maybe these girls are really (weak players); then when we got better, they were like ‘Oh, hijabi girls playing and they’re good.’ That’s an important thing for us.”
The sisters — who are also devoted Leafs fans — would like to encourage the Muslim community to learn their favourite game. They hope to help form a league in Scarborough or develop drop-in training sessions for Muslim women to generate interest.
Equipment belonging to the nine Azmi siblings lines the shelves of the family's garage in Toronto. (GALIT RODAN)
“We want to be good representatives, we want to encourage other people too, which would be awesome,” said Asiyah, who works in the financial industry.
The sisters’ dedication to ball hockey and their teammates was evident during Ramadan.
During the Muslim holy month, the fasting sisters did not bail out on their sporting obligations. The league moved all their games to 9 p.m. during Ramadan so the Azmis could then have water and eat (often a quick snack in the Coffey parking lot, post-game) after sunset.
Was it tough to play two 16-minute halves (with stop time) in a stuffy arena without food or drink since dawn?
“I think it was willpower because we really wanted to fast,” said Husnah.
The Azmis, who joined the summer house league’s west division in 2016, are now focused on preparing for the provincial championships. They’ve joined a gym to improve their overall fitness and with Rosenberg on their bench, they feel confident.
“We’ve definitely improved from last year,” said Nuha, referring to the Azmis being a little overwhelmed at their first trip to the provincial tournament.
“It was a much more competitive and faster pace. We know what to expect and we’ve been training hard.”