ABU DHABI// The Emirates Ice Hockey League (EICL) takes its first steps on to the rink today as Dubai Mighty Camels and Abu Dhabi Scorpions meet in the inaugural match. The game at the capital's Zayed Sports City rink will be the start of a six-month season that will end with one of the five competing teams being crowned UAE champions. Two teams of Emirati players, the Abu Dhabi Ice Hockey Club (ADIHC) and the Al Ain Ice Hockey Club (AAIHC), plus three expatriate teams, the Abu Dhabi Scorpions, the Al Ain Vipers and the Dubai Mighty Camels, fill the fixture list.
"Starting this league is a very significant step of the game in the UAE," said Mohammed Aref, the technical director for ADIHC, UAE national team defender and a driving force behind the new league. "You develop the national team from the league. If you have no league you have nothing." Round-robin style matches will take place in the capital, Dubai and Al Ain, with the Olympic-sized ice rink at Dubai Mall set to host the final round of play-off games in the first week of March next year.
The new league is part of a larger programme of development for ice hockey in the UAE, which is being rolled out by the UAE national ice hockey team and ADIHC. A country-wide league and a junior development programme were first on the list of a series of improvements which aim to encourage and cultivate the next generation of Emirati ice hockey players. A new national ice hockey rink is also in the pipeline.
Ice hockey may be blooming in some areas of the UAE with regional leagues already in full swing, but the Emirates Ice Hockey League will be the first to pit teams from different emirates against one another in an annual league. "We wanted to start small in the first year to see how things go but next year, all going well, it will be completely different," said Aref. "There are more teams playing in each of the emirates and we could have had more in the league, but we wanted to start with five teams. Once we see how this year goes we can build from there."
Creating a national league was one condition set down by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) earlier this year following the UAE national team's qualification for the 2010 IIHF World Championship Division III Qualifiers in Athens next April. A second requirement was the development of a sustainable junior programme, and it kicked off this summer with a junior summer camp and the launch of the Abu Dhabi Ice Hockey School, which opened its doors on September 27.
With a packed calendar of international fixtures ahead of them this season, Aref believes players from the UAE national team will gain vital match experience by competing in the league for the ADIHC and AAIHC. "It is good for the national team players to compete against the expats," he said. "They are strong players and have a different hockey mentality. We are always practice, practice, practice so this league will give us more experience and a better mentality to play more games."
In additional to league matches, the UAE national team will compete in a tournament in Thailand starting on October 27, followed by a three-day international tournament in Abu Dhabi next month, featuring 10 to 12 teams from Arab nations. Once the EIHL champions have been decided in March, the UAE national team will compete in the 2010 Asia Cup later that month, followed by the World Championship event in Athens in April. After playing in Greece, they head to a tournament in Hong Kong in May, before finishing their season at the Asian Clubs Championship in June.
"This is a very busy year for us and we have very big hopes," said Aref. "We have everything we need to help the UAE team grow and to play professional ice hockey, not in a big way, but it is still professional ice hockey." One drawback to their professional aspirations is a dearth of ice hockey referees based in the UAE. The arrival of Ryan Harb from Canada took the total up to five, still limiting the league to just two referees per game.
"We have a problem with referees. We don't have enough referees. We will have two referees at each game; there should be at least three. With the new systems there should be four. This is what we have to work with," Aref said. "We are going to have some clinics to find some local referees, but this is still in the planning process. "Hopefully we'll increase the number of coaches this year." Rivalries in the new league, in which games will be played over three 15-minute periods without the clock stopping, are sure to be lively. But Ali Kaddas, the technical manager for the UAE Ice Hockey Association and chairman of the Abu Dhabi Scorpions, is looking forward to a high level of talent and sportsmanship.
"Everybody is looking to be number one," said Kaddas, "but the one who trains the hardest will win the first league cup. "I would love to see the final between the Scorpions and the ADIHC. Each team has been training hard. It is an exciting thing for all of them. "I expect the Scorpions to reach the final, we have a high calibre of players." ADIHC and the Al Ain Vipers will meet in the second league match on Friday in Al Ain, with AAIHC and ADIHC meeting next Wednesday in the capital.