KHL heads to Dubai
by Andy Potts|06 DEC 2021
On Friday the first KHL game was played in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
photo: Yuri Kuzmin / KHL
The Russian hockey season is not noted as an opportunity for sunbathing and sight-seeing, but last week the participants in the KHL World Games in Dubai had the chance to do exactly that. Avangard Omsk and Ak Bars Kazan went to Dubai to play a regular season clash in an unusual hockey market – and hopefully sow the seeds of a new audience for the game in the Middle East.

“We flew in, we had a bit of time to look around, sunbathe and swim,” said Ak Bars captain Artyom Lukoyanov after his team’s 3-1 win. “In a short time, we managed to relax and play our hockey. It’s great that we won today, we’ll fly home happy. I think every player and coach in the KHL would get behind a new team in the UAE. After all, nobody thought we could create a team in Sochi, but we did.”

Friday’s showcase in Dubai’s Coca Cola Arena means the KHL has now played competitive games in 48 cities across 15 different countries. The on-going KHL World Games, which began in 2018/19, has previously taken regular season action to Austria and Switzerland, but this was a first visit to a country without a strong hockey tradition. And while the UAE might be better known for top-level cricket and Formula 1 action, hockey in the desert attracted 5,150 spectators to an arena where Covid-19 restrictions limited the capacity to 7,000.

The show ties in with the delayed Expo-2020 in Dubai and formed part of a weekend dedicated to Russia and winter sports. As well as hockey, Olympic champion figure skater Tatyana Navka put on an ice ballet based on ‘Sleeping Beauty’, and the two sports were united in the build-up to Friday’s game as Alina Zagitova, an Olympic figure-skating champion with Tatar roots, joined Ak Bars mascot IceBars on the ice for the pre-game show.

On the ice

It was billed as a clash between the KHL’s defending champion, Avangard Omsk, and its most titled team, three-time Gagarin Cup winner Ak Bars Kazan. Notionally the home team, Avangard took the lead in setting up the whole event, while Bob Hartley’s team is in need of results after an inconsistent start to the season has left it in fifth place in the Eastern Conference – secure in a playoff place, but some way behind leaders Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
Ceremonial face-off with Avangard Omsk captain Alexei Yemelin, Ak Bars Kazakh captain Artyom Lukoyanov and representatives from Russia and the Emirates.
photo: Yuri Kuzmin / KHL
However, for a time the showcase fell a bit flat. There was disappointment when the Ak Bars roster omitted veteran Danis Zaripov, who is poised to make his 1,300th appearance in Russia’s top league. Then the teams produced a goalless first period; as often happens, two well-matched rivals threatened to cancel each other out. For the hockey veteran, it was an intriguing battle but for a newcomer it perhaps lacked some of the frantic crowd-pleasing action of an authentic barn-burner.

Ak Bars probably shaded the opening exchanges, but in the second period Avangard showed signs of getting on top – only to fall behind midway through the frame. Artyom Galimov forced the puck home amid a scramble in front of Simon Hrubec to score the first ever pro hockey goal in Dubai. His captain, Artyom Lukoyanov, admitted that it wasn’t the prettiest goal ever scored, but it got a noisy response from a 5,000-strong crowd that comprised curious locals, hockey-starved expats and a scattering of dedicated traveling fans from Russia.

In the third, Ak Bars took the game away from Avangard with Steven Kampfer snaffling a well-worked goal before Lukoyanov forced a turnover and set up a counter-attack for Mikhail Glukhov to make it 3-0. Avangard was not quite finished – Nikita Soshnikov pulled a goal back with five to play, keeping the game alive until the hooter – but the Hawks could not quite muster a plot twist worthy of Scheherazade in this Arabian adventure.

Former Bruins, Panthers and Rangers D-man Kampfer thoroughly enjoyed his trip to Middle East. “It’s definitely a memorable one,” he said after the game. “I’ll always be able to say I won the first KHL game in the UAE!” From the other side, Avangard head coach Bob Hartley was enthusiastic about the experience. “Everything that we did here was a big win for hockey and the KHL,” he said. “Apart from our result, the whole trip was excellently organized, I’d like to congratulate everyone for their work on this event.” Avangard forward Sergei Tolchinski was disappointed with the outcome, but impressed with the rest of the trip. “Playing in Dubai was an experience,” he said. “I would never have imagined we could play hockey here, it’s definitely one to remember.”

The local scene

Hockey in the UAE is still a fledgling sport. The Emirates joined the IIHF in 2001 and over the last decade or so its national program has started to grow. The Emirate Hockey League combines teams of locals as well as expats. Today, the country has 590 players in total but, encouragingly, 337 of them are juniors. The pandemic has hit the progress of the national teams, who have been unable to play since 2019 when the men won promotion to Division IIIA. The women compete in the Challenge Cup of Asia and are hoping to make their World Championship bow in the near future.

During Friday’s festival, Fatima Al Ali, a 31-year-old forward on the UAE’s national team and also an IIHF-licensed referee, joined Avangard TV to talk about what the game meant to the Emirates’ hockey community – and how far her country has to travel to reach that level.

“It’s a very huge thing for us to have this,” Al Ali said. “Anyone who is in love with hockey is here, gathering together in the same place. Our women’s national team is all here to watch today’s game.”

And they were eager to learn from seeing a different level of hockey. “The ice is the same, but [in the KHL] the speed is different, the skill level, the mentality,” she added. “It takes time to adjust, to get to that level. I hope one day some of our Emirati players will be able to play into the KHL or the NHL.”

Al Ali was joined by legendary Swedish netminder Henrik Lundqvist, who was also excited by the prospect of bringing hockey to a wider audience.

“This is amazing,” he said. “It’s so good for the sport to have hockey here. As a player, you love to see the sport growing and become a world sport.

“This is a huge step, to have a KHL game in Dubai. If I could play, I’d love to be out there myself.”

More to follow?

Bringing the KHL to the UAE for a one-off game also prompted talk of a possible new addition to Russia’s cross-border league. It wouldn’t be the first time the league has expanded into a non-traditional hockey market: following the award of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games to Beijing, the KHL was instrumental in creating Kunlun Red Star as a vehicle to help China’s hockey program prepare to compete at the highest level.

Avangard’s chairman, Alexander Krylov, expanded on the possibility of an Arab franchise after Friday’s game. He acknowledged that the 3 million expats in the Gulf state would form the initial core audience – close to a million of them have roots in countries with a hockey tradition – but added that it would also take local involvement.

“If we are talking about creating a club then we need to build a full system,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to attract a new audience by using bloggers and showbiz stars, I’d like to do it through families.

“For a KHL club to emerge in Dubai, certain economic prerequisites must be met. The KHL has some negative experiences with creating clubs outside of Russia, so we are thinking about this but we won’t rush into anything. We need to see local sponsorship and support from the local authorities.”

KHL president Alexei Morozov added that the league was serious about expanding hockey’s borders, explaining that this trip was very different from previous KHL World Games events in Vienna, Zurich and Davos. “We want to be pioneers in places where people don’t know what hockey’s all about,” he said. “We have everything ready. The more countries we can visit, the more KHL fans we can find.”