By Kristen Anderson
Oliver Kylington moved away from his family when he was 18-years-old, still a teenager when he started playing in North America for the first time.
The transition was drastic. Adjusting to hockey on the other side of the world with the Calgary Flames’ AHL outfit, the Stockton Heat, was difficult.
But, thinking back to what his mother went through when she was the same age, fleeing the war-torn African nation of Eritrea and escaping Ethiopian military forces to find a better life, his challenges paled in comparison.
“Her older brother, my uncle, left to Europe before the war started to study and eventually ended up in Sweden,” explained Kylington, who was selected 60th overall by the Flames in 2015. “When the war started in Eritrea, it wasn’t the safest place to be so my mother and one of her younger sisters fled away with one of her friends.
“It was a journey for them to get to Sweden and get to my uncle.”
By way of Sudan Saudi Arabia, then spending a year in Italy, they finally made it to Sweden where Kylington’s entire family resides to this day. Kylington’s mother, Teber Zeru, one of eight children, did not escape unscathed and was shot in the arm as she tried to run. Yet she survived, and eventually met Kylington’s father Borje.
His family’s experiences and his mother’s incredible story have played a major role in Kylington’s life, and almost certainly helped him deal with the adversity of this season where he's struggled to get into the lineup and even passed through waivers.
“I think her journey and how she raised me was just to believe in yourself and whatever you are, you always have family surrounding you somewhere on the planet,” Kylington said. “She had a strong belief and left her comfort zone to get somewhere to be safe and seek protection…if my Mom wasn’t in Sweden, she wouldn’t have met my Dad.
“I think that sticks to you growing up and as you get older and start to realize what your values are.”
That includes celebrating diversity in today’s game and continuing to have dialogue surrounding racism in the game, a conversation that has come to the forefront in the hockey world.
Growing up in a biracial family and playing hockey at high levels, including skating in the Swedish Hockey League as a 16-year-old with Farjestad BK, Kylington indicated that he never experienced racially-motivated incidents or discrimination.
There was only one incident involving a racial epithet which happened while he was with the under-16 team and competing internationally during the 2012-13 season, which was shocking for a young Kylington.
“I don’t want to really go into what I did or what happened, but he called me a certain word and I lost it on him,” he said. “In Sweden, I haven’t been treated in that type of way. For me, I don’t see color, and I’ve always treated people the way I want to be treated.”
It’s that type of attitude towards life that has been instilled by Kylington’s family.
The 23-year-old defenseman talks publicly about his mom’s story, recognizing the sacrifices she made for a better life and remaining appreciative.
The lessons continue to resonate, especially as Kylington gets older and gains more perspective on life.
“Obviously you always appreciate (your parents’ journeys) and have always had (their sacrifices) in the back of your mind,” he said. “But now when you get older and hopefully wiser, you start to see the things they valued a lot and what they did, really, to help us kids get raised in a proper way and a good environment.”