Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 36° C (97° F) in the daytime, 28° C (82° F) in the night. That’s the weather forecast for next week. A good time to have siesta, or to be in air-conditioned shopping malls or hotels during the day as a visitor. Some like it even chillier: From Monday, the inaugural Arab Cup, a four-nation ice hockey tournament, will be played in Abu Dhabi. A milestone for hockey in this area.
National teams from Algeria, Kuwait, Morocco and the host nation United Arab Emirates will participate in the tournament. The hosts are, hockey-wise, the most known of the four nations. They are the only IIHF member of those four and an annual international tournament is held in Dubai, an event which from time to time includes European amateur teams. The host club is known for its awesome name, the Dubai Mighty Camels.
Also Kuwait is no stranger. After they had left international ice hockey due to a lack of activities, they participated in the 2007 Asian Games. In contrast, Algeria and Morocco will debut in Abu Dhabi. So let’s take a look on the rookie countries, which bring ice hockey to North Africa.
Ice hockey in Rabat’s Mega Mall
For Morocco, the Arab Cup comes just three years after the opening of the first and so far only ice rink in a shopping mall in Rabat, Morocco’s capital. Khalid Mrini is the president of the club Rabat Capitals. After having lived in the Canadian province of Quebec and learned to love ice hockey there, he brought the sport back to his native country with his brother Mimoun.
“Our team consists of young Moroccans together with compatriots from Quebec, Ontario, England and Sweden,” he says. “Four or five play on semi-pro level, the others are amateurs.” It will be the first time that a senior national team is formed while a team of kids from Morocco participated in a 2006 pee-wee tournament in Quebec. It was the first time that an Arab team played there and it was the first team from North Africa in an international tournament.
Beside the Capitals, there are two Moroccan clubs playing in Rabat: Les Ifis and the Falcons. A fourth one, the Cobras, is formed of kids from staff members of the American, British and Canadian embassy. More ice rinks are expected to open in Rabat, Casablanca, Khouribga, Marrakech and Fes.
“The Arab Cup is very important for us because we’re in the phase of learning and we want to show that we’re seriously looking for international competition,” explains Mrini, who is also manager of the Moroccan national team. His team has practised in the 150-seater arena in Rabat before the departure to the Emirates.
Algeria has a team, but no rink - yet
Algeria will be the other debutant in international ice hockey next week. While their Moroccan neighbours could prepare in their country, Algeria has no ice arena yet and is holding a training camp in London, Great Britain, before heading to Abu Dhabi. “We had some temporary ice rinks in Algeria to show our sport to the public and we also have inline hockey,” says Algerian national team player Karim Kerbouche describing the current situation.
As there’s no ice in Algeria yet, the national team is made up of players of Algerian nationality who live and play abroad. Algeria gained independence from French colonial rule in 1962. Many Algerians emigrated to France or Quebec, and many more did during the Algerian Civil War from 1991 to 2002.
Thus, most players come from France and the region of Montreal. Some of them are hockey pros like Djamel Zitouni, who plays in the highest French league for Épinal, or Yassine Fahas, who also plays in the Ligue Magnus, for Dijon. The most-known Algerian is missing with Malik Benturqui, who once played in the highest Swiss league and last season in the second-tier National League B for Lausanne.
Algerian sportsmen are no rarity in France. Some well-known French footballers like meanwhile-retired Zinedine Zidane are of Algerian descent.
“The Algerian television will cover the Arab Cup. Afterwards, we expect to return to Algeria and do various TV shows and possibly we’ll meet the Algerian president,” Kerbouche says.
The players hope that an ice rink will be built like in Morocco but right now, they’re focused on their international debut on Monday against Kuwait. Kerbouche: “This is huge for the Algerian team. We finally get to show the world who we are. We feel it’s the start of great things for Algerian ice hockey and a dream comes true for all involved.”
Before the inaugural Arab Cup has started, the 2009 edition is already planned. It will be in Kuwait City’s arena.