ABU DHABI // The ripple effect created by the country hosting and winning ice hockey's Challenge Cup of Asia two years ago continues be felt, with the next generation of national team players to be developed in the Under 20 Emirates League that will commence next month.
The league will be run on the same lines as the Emirates Ice Hockey League (EHL), with each of the teams - two from Dubai, an all-Emirati team from Abu Dhabi and possibly two from Al Ain, one of which will be from Al Ain's youth development programme.
It was set up on the recommendation of the sport's governing body, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), who stipulate an IIHF-sanctioned country must have an Under 20 league.
This could pave the way for the country to participate in the Under 20 World Championship and feed players into a national team that sparked interest in the sport by winning the Challenge Cup of Asia in 2009 with victory over Thailand in the final.
"We won the bid to stage this championship, which was a massive step forward in creating an awareness of such an important competition among the Emirati youth," said Mohammed Aref Al Jachi, the Emirati national team player and technical director of the UAE Ice Hockey Association.
"The sport has really progressed since we won the Challenge Cup of Asia. For us, it is a big breakthrough to provide our younger players with an incentive, as well as the opportunity to play, at a high level."
Ron Murphy, the captain and president of the Dubai Mighty Camels, believes the league can be as successful as the EHL, which is now in its third season.
"The benefits would be great for all those who get to play in the U20 league," Murphy said. "These youngsters will gain a lot of experience and for the Emirati players it will be a stepping stone to be selected for the senior national team. It also opens the opportunity for the young expatriate players to feature in regular age group competition in the same format of the country's senior league."
Murphy, a Canadian who has lived in Dubai for more than 12 years, helped form the two teams from Dubai to make in the inaugural youth league.
"When I arrived in Dubai there was around 40 players and now it has gone past 200 only with the men, so considering the women and the kids, it is close upon to 500," Murphy said. "The number has grown every passing year.
"The future of hockey in the UAE has no limits as long as the funds are there and as long as they groom the youth. In Abu Dhabi, they have a wonderful youth programme, they have flown down coaches and it is well structured on the development side."