x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

From embarrassing children to the NHL ... in 12 months

Remember when Claude Lemieux returned to the National Hockey League this January after an absence of more than half a decade and a visit to the UAE.

Rob McKenzie looks at how Claude Lemieux made a comeback after visiting the UAE Claude Lemieux returned to the National Hockey League (NHL) this January after an absence of more than half a decade and at the age of 43. His epic comeback itinerary included Switzerland, Massachusetts and Shanghai - but also, and this is not as well-known internationally, Abu Dhabi. A year ago yesterday he was part of a band of NHL alumni that had travelled to the capital to play against two UAE teams.

It was the social event of the season, for Canadians. And while at the time nothing suggested that history was in the making, the scene was certainly memorable. At Dh50 a ticket, the Friday night match against a UAE side at Abu Dhabi Ice Rink was vastly cheaper than a real NHL game and just as much fun, if less uncertain in outcome. It carried the cosiness of an evening in any small town in Canada, the canteen selling hot dogs, French fries and coffee at one end of the rink, a faded blue-and-white Zamboni parked at the other end, the stands half-filled with friends and family, the PA system scratchy.

My daughter McKenzie and I arrived early and she stocked up at the sweet shop. We found seats in the front row, near where the UAE men has their bench (not actually a bench, just an area near the gate where players could catch their breath until the next shift). One stand was empty except for three Emiratis in dishdashas. Other than them, it was almost all Westerners in attendance. The place was thick with Canadians: in a characteristic soft show of nationalism, as many Team Canada replica tops were being worn as NHL franchise outfits.

At centre ice, a man in a tuxedo introduced the NHL alumni: a motley group that included Craig Norwich, Mark "The Trees" LaForest, Ryan VandenBussche, Chris Nilan, Bob Probert and Lemieux. The puck dropped, the match began and the best player by far was Lemieux. He did not even seem to be trying; floating across the ice, hair flowing in the breeze, he created. Aaron Matte, a Canadian who played for the UAE team, was similarly stricken by Lemieux.

"Without a doubt, he was the best skater on their team," he said. "He was a natural skater with an easy stride, generating speed with little effort. He's built like a tank and he took it easy on us." The UAE trailed the professionals 6-1 after one period but did outscore them in the second period. Between periods, two teams of UAE youngsters played a mini-match. One goalie was so short he did not even reach the top of his net. Lemieux joined the children.

He corralled the puck and went in for a breakaway with the clear intention of letting him make a save on a probable Hall of Famer. The poor kid missed the puck. While the action slid to the Zamboni end of the rink, a red-faced Lemieux stayed by the far net, assuaging his guilt by chatting for several minutes with the youngster. McKenzie and I left the game five minutes into the third period with the score 10-5. On the way out we passed the three Emiratis, playing video games in the arcade.

Eight months and several continents later, Lemieux signed a contract to play for San Jose's minor-league affiliate in Worcester, Massachusetts. Since the Sharks promoted him to the big leagues in January, Lemieux has found steady work as a fourth-line player. He has been applauded in Denver, one of three cities for which he won the Stanley Cup; booed in Detroit, where memories of play-off shenanigans live long; and punched out by an Edmonton Oiler half his age. The Sharks tend to falter in the play-offs and are probably looking to Lemieux for the mental toughness of a man who plays his best hockey in the post-season.

Matte witnessed this single-mindedness in Abu Dhabi, though in the context of commerce. "He came across more as an ambitious businessman," he said. "He mentioned some business in Dubai and passed on a round of golf to attend some meetings. "You could definitely sense an air of determination about him." rmckenzie@thenational.ae