LUXEMBOURG – Ice hockey is the coolest game in the desert. At the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III in Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab country to win a point in the World Championship program. Now they think about hosting the event next year.
Among the smaller Asian nations, the Emirates are already a hockey power with one gold and three silver medals in the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia in recent years. Now the strongest national team from the Arabian Peninsula moves into the hockey mind of the other four billion of the world's population by playing in the World Championship program.
It’s only the third time the hockey cracks from the desert participate at this stage. The first two times the Emirati left empty-handed. But the team has developed each year, and now the play – for a rather new team on the scene – has become like a fairytale combined with much heart.
Already in the first game, an all-Asian clash against Hong Kong, the Emirates earned one point but lost in a shootout. After Hong Kong’s first goal, Omar al-Shamisi marked the 1-1 tie. The assists came from Juma al-Dhaheri and Mohammed al-Shamisi. These names show that there are not just Canadian expats who play in the country but more and more natives with first names such as Ahmed, Ali, Faisal, Khaled or Sultan.
“As a child I was skating on the ice,” Faisal al-Suwaidi remembers. “When I was in the U.S., my hockey interest grew.” Back in UAE, in 2001, he founded a team in Abu Dhabi.
That was difficult, the defender recalls: “The equipment is expensive and football is much better known. To find players was not easy.”
Until 2006, the sport yet developed, and clubs and youth programs were created.
“The kids look at some tricks on YouTube and learn them on the ice. This shows that anyone can play ice hockey,” he said. “I'm a desert player, but I can do it.”
Without question, Arab ice hockey involves a lot of heart and soul. And the people love this sport. “The league games are played on the ice in a shopping mall. So people get to know the sport. People like it because it is so fast and complex.”
Only some members of the staff are from outside the country. Coach Yuri Faikov from Belarus has been active in Emirati hockey for years. Even if the team won the first World Championship point ever, he says: “We don’t have the best possible team here. Shortly before the tournament here in Luxembourg we played at the Challenge Cup of Asia where we won silver.”
Each of the players has regular work too, they are not professionals. The former Dynamo Minsk player has to cope without his best two lines. “And the others are still tired from the other tournament,” he says and adds that he lost one player due to a broken hand.
In the domestic league Faikov also coaches the team of the reigning champion Abu Dhabi Storm. The sport is gaining interest. The league consists of five teams with Arabs and expats alike. There are three ice rinks and another one in a shopping mall, all international size.
“We hope that we can have the 2015 World Championship Division III in our country to show this sport to our people and to bring the event home,” says player Faisal al-Suwaidi about his hopes. “We play with heart and want to show our flag.”
In Luxembourg, the dream of winning a medal won’t come true. But at least the first championship point is theirs. That’s history too. And in the last game against Georgia the team is expected to win.
Meanwhile, the neighbours also play hockey in countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain. “Our management tries to push them. All now have a national team. It is like a key that you have to turn,” he said.
In June the countries hope to organize an Arab Cup for the second time, in Kuwait.