ABU DHABI – In a desert land where the summer sun scorches the earth and camel racing is the traditional native sport of choice, the last thing you’d expect to find is an ice hockey culture with over two decades of tradition. But, if you seek it out, that’s exactly what you’ll find in the United Arab Emirates; a country in which modernism and antiquity overlap daily.
The UAE has been a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation since 2001, although ice hockey has been played in the country since 1979. While the UAE national program officially has just 195 registered players (85 adult males, 100 juniors and 10 females) and is still working toward participation in the World Championship Division III, it is among the best-equipped non-traditional hockey countries to continue to advance the game.
Despite the climate, there are three well-maintained rinks in the UAE, including two that conform to IIHF standard dimensions. The rinks are located in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai. There’s a viable national ice hockey association, growing funding for the sport, and an active league (dominated by expatriate players and clubs such as the famous Dubai Mighty Camels but with a core of native UAE players). Currently, there are over 300 players, from more than 20 different countries participating in the hockey programs offered by clubs in the UAE.
Among the three rinks in the United Arab Emirates, the one that’s the most striking to foreign visitors is the one in Al Ain. Lying adjacent to Fun City – the largest and most popular theme park in this part of the world – the building cuts a majestic figure and is intentionally designed on the outside and inside to be a welcoming refuge from the searing heat.
The UAE recently drew international attention for hosting the first Arab Cup tournament at the Abu Dhabi Ice Rink in Sheikh Zayed Sports City, winning the competition in a field that also included Kuwait, Algeria and Morocco. While the tournament’s organization and outcome are the most significant steps UAE hockey has taken, the story of Arabian hockey dates back to 1979.
That year, the Al Nasr sports club, chaired by Sheikh Manaa Al Maktoum, opened a sports complex adjacent to the main football grounds in Dubai. In addition to an ice skating rink, there was a wave pool, a bowling alley and other activities.
At the request of Canadian expatriates, ice hockey lines were subsequently added to the rink and the first UAE hockey league was formed, consisting of the Oilers (primarily Canadian expatriate players), the Dubai Penguins (Arab players), the Vikings (Swedes and other Northern Europeans) and the Tigers (primarily British).
In the early 1980s, the UAE saw the introduction of junior divisions coached by western expatriates. Several hockey programs from Europe – including teams based in Finland and Germany – sent players to Dubai. The momentum was stalled by a downturn in the economy in the middle part of the decade. Many of the foreign players returned home and participation the sport dropped, although some young locals stayed with the game.
A decade later, a new group of expatriate players arrived and local interest and access to the game began to grow anew. In the 1990s, an annual international tournament was formed to coincide with the Dubai Shopping Festival; which by 1995 was sponsored by Finnish communications conglomerate Nokia and by 1999 had grown to 11 teams representing UAE nationals, expatriate Europeans and North Americans living in the Gulf, Kuwaitis, Bahrainis and visiting teams based in China and Switzerland.
The UAE Ice Hockey Association was formed in 1999 and joined the IIHF in 2001. During the current decade, the UAE has sent players to tournaments in Asia while attempting to further the development of the national program and eventually be ready to compete successfully at the Division III level.
“When we told the IIHF about our plans, lots of members came to us and asked us how can we play ice hockey in a desert country? They couldn’t believe it, but the IIHF has given us a lot of support,” said Belarusian UAE coach Yuri Faykov.
Most notably, the UAE national team participated in the ice hockey tournament in the 2007 Winter Asian Games in Changchun, China. The UAE competed in a group that included a powerful team from Kazakhstan (which beat the UAE team by a 38-0 score but lost gold to Japan) and a hapless team from Thailand.
To further boost the development of the UAE junior hockey program, the association in conjunction with Scandinavian airline SAS arranged last year for Finnish hockey legends Jari Kurri and Jorma Valtonen to hold a series of youth hockey camps in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain over a two-week period.
Thus, when the inaugural Arab Cup tournament was announced earlier this year, the UAE was the logical host. To the extent that the UAE nationals have an arch-rival in ice hockey, it’s the Kuwaitis. Matches between the two sides are often physical contests that keep the officials busy between and after the whistles. Those who are unfamiliar with the teams’ antipathy for one another – on and off the ice – are often surprised at the ferocity with which the UAE and Kuwait team display when they play each other. Conversely, the other two participating countries, Algeria and Morocco, are newcomers.
The Arab Cup tournament featured quite a few non-Arab nationals recruited to play for the participating teams. For example, Kuwait’s entire first line consisted of Czech players and both the Kuwaitis and Emiratis had European goaltenders. The calibre of play was rather modest, beneath that of teams that win at the Division III level. But it was a start.
“This tournament is about trying to showcase our sport and show people that there are Arabs in the Middle East who can play ice hockey. It’s not about who wins this tournament, but about showing the public in the UAE what ice hockey is about,” said Mohammed Aref, a key tournament organizer and UAE team member.
The tournament brought live local television coverage with Arabic game commentary, satellite broadcasts to Algeria and Morocco and media attention from the western world.
The crowds were loud and enthusiastic, waving flags, singing and banging drums. Even if the game itself was a riddle to those who had only seen football before, people understood what it meant when their side scored a goal or the goaltender caught the puck.
Much of the foreign coverage focused on how unexpected it was to see ice hockey in a country where outdoor temperatures during the tournament reached as high as 41 degrees Celsius (106 degrees Fahrenheit). Others commented on how the spectators – who got in for free – came to the rink dressed in parkas and gloves. But there was never a question that ice hockey would be a novelty to the vast majority of people in the Arab world.
The bigger point was that the tournament provided an introduction to the game for people who may otherwise never have seen hockey. Some spectators, especially youngsters, may someday soon become players. Thus, the first Arab Cup tournament was a community-building event for ice hockey in Islamic countries.
What’s more, it was the first international hockey event in the UAE that the Emirates’ program arranged on its own. The know-how the UAE community has gained from the expatriates was evident, but the Emirates pulled the event together and made it a success. Next year’s tournament will be held in Kuwait.
In terms of the action on the ice, there were few surprises. The hosts easily dispatched Morocco by a 9-0 count, tied Kuwait 2-2, toppled Algeria by a 6-2 score, routed the Algerians 10-4 in the semifinals and then defeated Kuwait in the finals, 4-1.
In the decisive match, goals by Egar, Yura and Juma Al Dhaheri (who scored six goals in the tournament and sported number 99 on his jersey in Wayne Gretzky fashion) gave the UAE a 3-0 lead after two periods. Martin Petovsky, a Czech player who plays Czech minor league hockey for HC Benesov, got Kuwait on the board to break the shutout.
The Algerians, led by tournament most valuable player Haroun Litim (four goals, 11 points in five games), took third place after downing Morocco 7-5 in the decisive match. Earlier in the tourney, Algeria dropped a 9-6 game to the Moroccans and an 8-3 decision to Kuwait in addition to their losses to the UAE.