x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Get your skates on

Feature Ice hockey in the desert may sound like the start of a joke, but the game is far from a laughing matter in the UAE.

James Tester sretches before a Scorpians scrimmage at the Abu Dhabi Ice Skating Arena.
James Tester sretches before a Scorpians scrimmage at the Abu Dhabi Ice Skating Arena.

There is a lot more ice in the desert these days than anyone would have suspected. Thankfully it's not because of global-warming weather patterns or some bizarre El Niño-like spate of freezing rain descending on the normally scorching climes of the UAE. No, this ice belongs to "the coolest game in the desert", according to the official motto of the UAE ice hockey teams. The chilly game is thriving here, despite the ever-rising temperatures - or perhaps because of them.

The novelty of ice sports in the desert has yet to wear off. New rinks seem to be opening everywhere, from the olympic-sized venue in Dubai Mall to a seasonal open-air rink built in Dubai Festival City. Covered with PVC in the daytime and opened only in the evenings to prevent the sun from melting the ice, the rink is kept frozen with the power of a giant generator called "the chiller". Skaters wearing everything from khandouras to T-shirt and shorts glide around the rink, which is constructed around an outcrop of six palm trees.

For Abu Dhabi skaters and hockey players, the ice rink in Zayed Sports City is the main venue. The contrast between the brightly lit, shiver-inducing inside of the rink and outside, where the sun is setting behind fledgling construction sites and sand dune-filled surroundings, is striking. The UAE isn't the only place where they play hockey in the desert, though. There are rinks and ice hockey teams in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain and all of them play against each other in area tournaments such as the Arab Cup and the Winter Asian Games.

There are four main leagues in the UAE including the national team in Ghantoot, which only has Emirati players, and others in Al Ain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. On any Sunday or Wednesday evening, you can find the Abu Dhabi Scorpions hockey team whizzing around the ice in Zayed Sports City. Of all the UAE's ice hockey teams, only the Abu Dhabi Scorpions are members of the International Ice Hockey Federation and hence eligible to play in international tournaments.

The Scorpions divide themselves into four more sub-teams (with names like the Winehouses and the Poke Checks) of about 15 players each so that they always have enough people to play. They meet between 8.00 and 10pm to play in front of a small crowd. On the night I visited, the Scorpions have gathered to scrimmage as they always do, but there is only a small group of four onlookers at the ice rink - the so-called "girlfriend crew" and an elderly couple who are from out of town. The rink can easily seat more than 600 fans, and it's surprising that there aren't more people here to check out the action. After all, ice hockey is one of the few sports where players are almost encouraged to get into fully fledged fist fights. This fact alone usually ensures that the professional games in North America are packed to the rafters.

Most players are wearing their jerseys with their name spelt out across the back. There are plenty of French-inflected Canadian names such as "Plante" and "Giguere" as well as a few Nordic one like "Eke". Then there's "Kaddas." This turns out to be Ali Kaddas, a 32-year-old Emirati businessman and Scorpions team member who is a showman to boot. Kaddas ends up scoring a much needed goal later that night. As he drives the puck into the net, he skates around the rink victoriously as the other team looks on in frustration. Good thing this league is strictly non-contact; the most a player can do is accidentally crush another skater up against the wall.

Skating has been around as long as there has been ice, but ice hockey as we know it has been played in some form since the 1700s. Born in northern Europe and then sent overseas with the British and French occupational armies to the North American colonies, the sport quickly took hold in Canada and the colder parts of the United States. Ice hockey officially became Canada's national sport in 1994 and today there are 30 professional teams in North America, plus 66 countries registered with the International Ice Hockey Federation.

Interest in ice sports in the UAE began in 1979 when the first rink was built in Dubai. Other venues popped up in the country after that, as more hockey-playing expats moved to town and small leagues were formed. From a mere handful of diligent players who were there during the early days, the group of Emirati players has grown to more than 70 in all of the leagues combined. There is also a revolving door of over 300 expats who get together regularly for practices, games and tournaments, plus children's teams like the Abu Dhabi Falcons and the Dubai Sandstorms.

Kaddas learned about ice hockey at age 14. His family used to go on holidays during the summertime to escape the heat, but in the summer of 1992, they decided to stay at home in Abu Dhabi. "We didn't travel and the coolest place where we can have a great time away from heat in June, July, August is the ice rink," says Kaddas, who has been playing hockey now for over half of his life. After long days of skating, Kaddas saw some expats with padding, helmets and sticks, which quickly piqued his interest.

"They went on the ice and hit this black thing," he adds. "We didn't know what ice hockey was - it's not one of the sports we saw on TV. I went up to one of the guys and I said, 'Can we play?' and he said, 'OK but I have to get you some gear'." By December, Kaddas was fully outfitted with second-hand equipment and a stick, and he's never looked back. "From that time, I never ever missed an ice hockey game," he boasts.

Most of the players come from freezing tundras such as Ottawa and Helsinki and have been playing since they were five years old. Kelly Ryan, a 40-year-old Canadian, is another Abu Dhabi Scorpion who has been playing hockey for nearly all of his life. Ryan played professionally for six years, but ended his pro career and moved to Saudi Arabia for a job in sales in the 1990s, consequently taking some time off the ice. When he came to Abu Dhabi in 2003, Ryan immediately put his skates back on and ended up becoming one of the Abu Dhabi Scorpions league organisers.

"When I first came here to Abu Dhabi, the expat community had rented the ice rink about once or twice a week and were just skating for informal scrimmages, so I got together with Ali [Kaddas] and helped form a structure, created a committee, delegated some responsibilities to a few different individuals and we were off to the races as far as growing our little club," says Ryan. "It was tough for a lot of years - we had only 20 or 30 guys, but we're up to around 60 now so it warrants having four teams and we keep it light, but it gives everybody a little bit of home feeling and competition."

On the rink the men wear shoulder pads, shin pads and (unfortunately-named) girdles, all made thick to break their falls, but they skate amazingly smoothly even while wearing this extra 10 pounds of equipment. You would think they would lose their balance, but really the only falls come when the guys pile up by the goalie, trying desperately to flick the puck into the net. Like Ryan, there are some other former professional National Hockey League players and a throng of skaters who were once playing semi-pro. "It's not some guys who suit up and kick the puck around," says Bobby Bélanger, another player with the Scorpions. "It's not like that at all - these guys are really good."

Most people will never be able to pick up a hockey stick and play like Kaddas, Bélanger or Ryan without years and years of effort, says Bélanger, who also helped coach the Abu Dhabi Falcons children's league. "It's a little more difficult to start ice hockey as an adult here. The first thing you have to do is learn how to skate," says Bélanger. "For children, however, you can contact the Abu Dhabi Falcons and they have a lot of levels, a lot of ages and a lot of spare equipment going around - I mean, kids grow quickly - but learn how to ice skate first." Good advice, and ice skating whether it's done in a hockey scrimmage or on its own is still good exercise during the wintertime as well as a cool escape for the upcoming sticky summer months here.

Bélanger says that even though ice sports are popular with kids in some areas of the UAE and coaching aspiring Emirati NHL-ers was fun for him, ice hockey will never overtake football as the number one sport in the Emirates. The difficulty lies in the amount of equipment and finding time to get to the ice rink. "Football you can play anywhere and all you need is a ball," he adds. "It would be a unique challenge to get Emiratis to start skating as youths and eventually even put some gear on them and a hockey stick in their hands and try to grow a minor programme," says Ryan. "It's been done in other areas of the world and there's no reason it can't be done here." With the number of skaters set to increase as the year continues - and temperatures creep up - helping kids grow up on ice sports in the middle of the desert doesn't seem so strange after all.

swolff@thenational.ae