Bringing ice to the desert

Qatar one of three Gulf states in Sapporo

27.02.2017
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Gulf clash: Qatar and Kuwait both played in the Division II tournament of the 2017 Asian Winter Games. Photo: Reiji Nagayama

SAPPORO, Japan – The Gulf emirate of Qatar is a relative newcomer to the world of hockey. Despite this fact, there exists a growing passion for the game there.

The Qatar team finished the Division II men's tournament at the Asian Winter Games with a 0-3 record, following losses to Kuwait, the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan, but remains positive about their future development.

Marius Gliga, the Romanian who serves as head coach for the Qatari national team, provided some background on how hockey began there and the makeup of his squad.

“The culture for hockey in Qatar was started by the expats - Canadians and Americans,” stated Gliga following a feisty battle with Kuwait. “These guys on our team now have played since they were kids. Now they are 18. They have played for 3-5 years. We started doing more with our national program about three years ago.”

The youth of his players is a positive says Gliga.

“The average age of our team is about 20,” he noted. “Now we are trying to develop something that we started as a fun activity into a more professional and performance approach.”

Gliga described how those from the youth ranks are becoming involved.

“Besides the national team, which is around 20 players, we have about 50 juniors,” Gliga said. “Some of them are pretty good. They are divided in groups of Under-15 and Under-12. It is still growing. Hopefully very soon they will have more teammates.”

Some might wonder how kids from a desert nation would be attracted to an ice sport. Forward Mohammed Al Muhaizaa explained how his interest came about.

“I have been playing for three-and-a-half years. I started when I was 14 years old,” the 17-year-old recalled. “I began by just doing public skating and my older brother wanted to try something new. He and his friends went and started a team and then he invited me to try and play. I like the game and I would like to be more professional and improve more.”

Al Muhaizaa said people are still learning about hockey's existence in his country.

“When I tell someone I play ice hockey, they say: ‘Do we have this in Qatar?’” he said. “Some of them get surprised, and others know about it.”

Al Muhaizaa follows the NHL and says Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning is his favourite player.

Defencemen Adbdulla Al Muhaizaa is the older brother of Mohammed Al Muhaizaa and told how family ties brought them both hockey.

“I have been playing for the national team for four years now,” Adbdulla Al Muhaizaa said. “My brother and I joined the team because of our bigger brother. He decided to try something new, so we decided to get into a new sport.”

Both brothers are currently students. Adbdulla Al Muhaizaa, who likes the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, said they would like to continue playing hockey outside the Gulf.

“Hopefully, in the long term, we want to play in college hockey abroad,” he stated.

Thamer Al Mohannadi is the captain of the Qatar team. At the age of 28, he is he senior player of the group.

“I have been with the national team since 2011, since they started the federation,” Al Mohannadi commented. “I played in public sessions and saw some of the hockey players who played in our league in Qatar. I was more interested and said: ‘Why can't I play this game?’”

Al Mohannadi provides insight into some of the allure he found in hockey.

“It's a very exciting game. The fastest game in the world,” he pointed out.

Al Mohannadi, who says he follows the NHL's Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks) also Conor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers), detailed how he worked his way up to the national team.

“I joined the minor league in Qatar. I played for two years,” he remembered. “Then I had to quit because of my studies. Then the federation began. They asked for players and I joined. We currently have six or seven club teams - divided by A and B.”

Qatar is one of three Gulf states at the Asian Winter Games. The United Arab Emirates played in the Division I event, Kuwait and Qatar in the Division II competition where a fourth Gulf state was set to join with Bahrain until a late withdrawal. Also Oman plays internationally.

Qatar had its international debut last year at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia Division I in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek it finished with a 1-3 record getting the first ever win in the last game, a 5-2 victory against India.

Click here for scores from the four ice hockey tournaments at the 2017 Asian Winter Games.

JACK GALLAGHER

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