From Abu Dhabi to Lillehammer

Former Olympic ref talks about new challenge

20.02.2016
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Joy Johnston (in the middle) with Emirati on-ice officials Yahya Al Jneibi and Fatima Al Ali.

LILLEHAMMER – Two years ago on this day Joy Tottman was officiating the women’s gold medal game of the Sochi Olympics. Meanwhile she’s married and as Joy Johnston helps referees both in the United Arab Emirates and right now at the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer.

Since last season Johnston works in Abu Dhabi and is also working her second tournament as a referee supervisor in training here in Lillehammer where she’s mostly working at the women’s ice hockey tournament but has also done one or the other game on the men’s side.

IIHF.com talked with her about her new challenges off the ice.

How do you enjoy your job at the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games?

This is my second tournament as a referee supervisor in training. I’m enjoying the challenge of it. This tournament is fantastic. For many of the girls here it’s the first or second IIHF experience. For me that was such a long time ago so it brings back good memories of the start of the journey for me. It’s exciting to be part of other people’s journey from the start and I hope that some of the girls here will progress and make it to the high-level tournaments. I’d love to see them succeed and in some small ways help them in the beginning. The nice thing here is the combination of the men and the women. This doesn’t often happen at an IIHF tournament of hockey. They’ve been able to build their own group as a team of female officials and then widen that to a big group of male and female officials and learn from each other to develop. It’s a fantastic experience and great country and great games.

How did your involvement with the United Arab Emirates Ice Hockey Federation start?

I was in Vierumaki at the Women’s Development Camp and I had a conversation with the IIHF Asian Project Manager to find somebody to go to the UAE, which was looking for a referee-in-chief to help them develop their officiating program. I’ve been there before on holidays. I like the country and after the Olympics I was undecided about my next challenge in international ice hockey, so I decided to take the challenge and try something on the side of instructing and supervising instead.

Don’t you sometimes think about going back to the ice?

I’m still making the transition and part of me really wants to be out on the ice but I think my time of that is finished and it’s time for me to step aside and to let others enjoy the experiences I have. The best thing I can do is to give back to the IIHF program what it has given to me. I’m still on the ice nationally but internationally I’m giving back to the program.

Now you are already in your second season in the United Arab Emirates.

Initially it was a one-season contract because my husband has a good job in London and stayed there and travels out every month. At the end of the year I built a program and strategy for the way forward for their officiating and they asked me if I would stay longer. So I said yes to stay one more year but during that year I’d train one of the locals to take over the role and head the officiating program for the future.

Tell us how it is to work together with him and building the program.

His name is Yahya Al Jneibi. He has played for the UAE national team for a number of years and plays on the local Abu Dhabi Storms team. He has done some officiating before. I was having trouble convincing him but then he came to the IIHF Officiating Management Seminar last summer in Frankfurt and I think this really opened his eyes to the importance of officiating and developing officiating. So much that he stepped back and quit the playing side for the local club this year. We have worked together every day on planning for the future of officiating. He has recruited a number of locals to get involved who have never officiating before. Some of them have played, some of them have not played and are really new to hockey and officiating. He has run some seminars fully in Arabic. That has been good. We have also translated the Rule Book into Arabic, which I think is one of the more interesting languages and it reads from right to left. We made the translation but we are still painfully going through each page and he reads from the Arabic version what it says and I confirm to him whether that’s correct. They don’t have some of the words and terminology in Arabic that we use in hockey so sometimes it’s just used in English. He made a lot of progress and is really dedicated. Under his leadership the officiating program will really take off for the UAE and the region as a lot of the Gulf countries are going to the UAE for support now.

Was it at the beginning a challenge for you to work there with the cultural differences and traditions?

I think yes, there were some things we had to adapt around my living arrangements but the federation and the UAE made that possible when working with me. I think now it’s not important for them whether I’m a woman or a man, they accept my experience and my role but I had to learn some cultural things. One of the most unusual things for me is that out of respect they don’t shake a woman’s hand. So when I was refereeing some games some players would refuse to shake my hand while in my country sometimes this can be a misconduct penalty but in this situation it was more out of respect. Having to understand a bit more the environment I was working in and adapting the rules is good. Men should also not look into the eyes of a woman unless they’re my husband also out of respect. That was also difficult when I first met my boss and having some conversations he was looking on the floor and I wasn’t sure whether he was listening to me but we have really developed a good relationship. His name is Mohamed Aref and he’s a sport director and he’s a good guy to lead the federation forward and he’s now bringing in more locals to help in roles like officiating. It was definitely a different environment for me to work in but we made it forward.

Anything you are missing in Abu Dhabi from Great Britain?

My husband is the main thing and my network of friends but the job has been really interesting and the things we’ve been able to achieve and seeing new officials on the ice for the first time. We developed a shadowing program where Yahya was on the ice as kind of a ninja referee in a black-track suit and whispering on how to move and read the game. I also miss the rain I guess since it doesn’t rain so much in Abu Dhabi and I’m used to it every day in England (laughs).

Recently you had your first female official from the UAE officiating in an IIHF tournament with Fatima Al Ali.

She has really been a trailblazer for women in hockey in the UAE. She plays on the women’s national team, she takes photographs for the club, she coaches, she teaches children to skate, she referees, she’s someone who really loves the game and is involved in everything she can be. I think she’s had challenges being a local woman and getting involved but she had the support from her family to do that and the club is also supporting her in her officiating career which is good.

How is top-level hockey in the Emirates organized?

The Emirates Hockey League is the IIHF-approved league, which runs across the Emirates. There are three ice rinks where they play – one is in the Dubai Mall, the biggest shopping mall in the world, one is in Abu Dhabi and one in Al Ain, which is on the border with Oman. There are seven teams that play in there, five of them are expat teams and two of them are local teams. And on the local teams in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain they have three or four expats or professional players who are the coaches for the junior program and they play on the local teams to bring up the skill level of the locals. Dubai also has its own setup and programs.

How is your Arabic doing?

I can say thank you, shukran, and salaam alaykum, which is their greeting and means may peace be with you. And inshallah, which I learned from the first day, which means if God is willing to I will make the meeting at 10am and if not I will not be there. That was something to get used to for making arrangements. So someone would never confirm a meeting and say inshallah I shall be there. Things are different. But this is the wonderful thing about Yahya. He has travelled a lot and is a good bridge between the Arab culture and the western world and I think in this role as an officiating manager you need somebody who can do that and work across to work with the IIHF.

Is it sometimes tricky to have a league with local and expat teams?

It’s a turning point for the UAE because they’re really thinking about how to develop locals best and the league has really been a good tool so far. It’s a question for both locals and the expats whether segregation and playing against each other or integration should be the better model. The expats that are there play as a hobby. They have their jobs there and a profession in the UAE and happen to play ice hockey also and some of their focus is more on their own enjoyment rather than the development of the local players. The locals also have their day jobs and are playing for fun but they have a more structured program and train every day for hockey and have a professional coach whereas the expats teams may get the opportunity to train once or twice a week and everything is arranged by themselves. Their approach is slightly different.

Is there interaction with the other Gulf countries?

There is a lot of interaction across the Gulf and the UAE really leads the way for a lot of Gulf countries. Before I came here I was supervising the Gulf Cup, which is a tournament the GCC organizes themselves. It was Oman, Qatar, UAE and Kuwait play together during five, six days. We co-operate a lot and we have had new officials from Oman coming to us for an officiating seminar and the UAE also provided me as a resource to Qatar to help run a Level I seminar for them. There is a lot of co-operation. The UAE national team won the tournament. It was very nice when we returned to the airport and the players were taken from the plane to a VIP bus and the media was there to interview them.

You said you travelled to the Gulf countries before. What fascinated you?

Each country is different although they are in the same region and have similarities. I was in Kuwait, which was an interesting place to visit and has very good shopping. Qatar has a fantastic old souk, this and their culture was nice to see too. Every country has something different to offer and what they have in common is they’re trying to develop hockey. The UAE is a fascination of how the culture has adapted and developed some western ways but still maintains some very strong cultural roots from themselves. It’s an interesting, fascinating place to be and it’s a country which is westernized to an extent so you’re able to live there as an expat but there are some nice things that are there from their roots.

What are your future plans when returning to Great Britain after this season?

I would hope for my future that I will still support and help the UAE because the program there will be great and I support Yahya fully. If ever he needs my help I will always go back, maybe for tournaments or clinics. I hope I can continue working in hockey when I’m back in England. I will have to see whether Ice Hockey UK or the English Ice Hockey Association need help from me.

MARTIN MERK

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