x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

An historic first as Vipers ice crown

The opening season of the Emirates League ended with a come-from-behind Al Ain victory and with the promise of better things to come.

Michael Jabri-Pickett, the Al Ain Vipers' netminder, kept a clean sheet in the decider against the Dubai Mighty Camels.
Michael Jabri-Pickett, the Al Ain Vipers' netminder, kept a clean sheet in the decider against the Dubai Mighty Camels.

As the final buzzer blared, crowning Al Ain Vipers as the first Emirates Hockey League (EHL) champions, Dennis LeBlanck knew he had just helped to make history. As perspiration-fuelled steam escaped - released from the trappings of his victorious players' helmets - into the rafters of the Olympic-sized ice rink at Zayed Sports City, the Vipers' coach could, at last, muster a smile.

"I reminded the boys that they had the opportunity to make history," says LeBlanck. "It's not much, but it's history all the same. There was only going to be one winner of the first EHL season, and it's the Vipers - it's a big deal." The emergence of a credible domestic ice hockey league has been years in the making. The Vipers' come-from-behind triumph against the Dubai Mighty Camels in the best-of-three finalsseries brought the curtain down on a season which proves ice hockey has a home in the Emirates.

"The first season is always rough and I think next year will be much bigger," says LeBlanck. "It's been a very successful first year and it will keep building. The games were close and some of the people who should have been playing haven't this year - maybe they will next year. We're already looking forward to it." A percentage of those missing players, according to the Vipers captain, Ahmed Hennawi, could form part of a new Dubai-based team for 2010/11 to bring the number of league members up to six.

"The problem with expansion though is the UAE's transient population," he says. "There's no point having a watered-down league, we need to protect, and ensure, the quality." Ability was certainly not in short supply during the finals, which featured three matches in eight energy-sapping days. The Camels, who won their opening home game 5-3 before falling 4-3 in Al Ain and 4-0 at the neutral Abu Dhabi rink on Wednesday evening , had been pre-finals favourites.

The Vipers, however, showed resolve and innovation to clinch overall honours. "We started out the season as maybe the third best team, certainly not the favourites," says LeBlanck. "But we acquired some players who ended up in the UAE, like a lot of people do, and there was a change in personnel. We slowly started to believe in ourselves and beat the top two teams, only once, but it was enough. "For the finals, the boys all took a role and they followed those roles to the tee - they've played two fantastic games."

The last of the Vipers' victories, however, went beyond fantastic. With their goaltender, Michael Jabri-Pickett, defiantly repelling the Camels' relentless attacks, Adam Meyer, one of LeBlanck's mid-season additions, was a class above. Elegant, assured and potent, Meyer was king of the ice. The No 6's red shorts - his team-mates sported black - served as a fitting indicator that his talents should be recognised. Hennawi concurs. "We've come to expect goals from Adam, Brian [Flattery] and Mike [Merriman, who scored the opener in game three]," he says. "But it was our time, everyone showed up. It hasn't really sunk it, but we've won something pretty special."

As debut seasons go, the EHL's has excelled. And with a second season scheduled to start after Ramadan, Hennawi promised evolution not revolution. "It can only get better, the original plan was to use this season as a pilot and look at how it worked logistically to see what would happen and what the teams were like," he says. "There's been some bumps in terms of a few games being rescheduled, but that's natural." So, it seems, is ice hockey in the Emirates. @Email:emegson@thenational.ae