x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ice hockey is heating up 'too quickly' as a sport in UAE

The Asian development manager of the sport's world body concedes the infrastructure in the UAE is struggling to cope with the increasing popularity.

Coach Matti Fagerstrom, in red outfit, works with his players.
Coach Matti Fagerstrom, in red outfit, works with his players.

ABU DHABI // The Asian sport development manager of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) concedes the infrastructure in the UAE is struggling to cope with the increasing popularity of the sport.

On the back of the national team winning the Asian Cup in 2009 and finishing third in the Asian Olympic Winter Games, ice hockey is enjoying a boon to such an extent that development programmes are over subscribed.

Representatives of the IIHF, who are in the capital to oversee a training camp for the best Under 17 players in Asia, have vowed to help the country cope with the increasing interest.

"Ice hockey is developing so fast in the UAE, as it all over the Middle East," Jukka Tiikkaja said.

"It's good that there are rinks available here and an infrastructure in place to cope with the demands of the sport.

"But it is actually growing too quickly here. This is the fourth such development camp in Asia, although the last one was now four years ago in China.

"So we are trying to be a little more active with our Asian members.

"However, the programmes are evolving to an extent that, right now, they [UAE] can't take on any more junior players without developing the infrastructure even further than it is at the moment.

"We will help the people here cope with that."

The UAE boasts two leagues - the Dubai Camels League and the Emirates Ice Hockey League. The latter contains five teams, including the national team, and they play at four Olympic-size rinks in Al Ain, Dubai Mall, Al Nasr and Zayed Sports City. There are plans to build more.

Also, the first ever ladies' team from the Emirates - the Abu Dhabi Storms - took part at the Asian championship in Hong Kong last month.

Hamel al Qubaisi, the vice-president of the country's Ice Hockey Association, is thrilled with the popularity of the sport.

"Ice hockey is such a big sport in the UAE," al Qubaisi said.

"It is important to know this. The UAE international side is strong and that is the same with a team of all UAE nationals.

"It might sound strange that these people who live in the hot desert should like such a winter sport, but they do.

"Our plan is always to attract many different ice hockey teams to the UAE as possible over the next few years."

The UAE's growing reputation in the region was reflected by the fact that the IIHF hand-picked them to host the week-long regional camp.

"We were delighted to host this camp," al Qubaisi said. "It's not easy to organise this sort of event, but the IIHF know us [and] knew we could do it."

More than 50 players from countries ranging from Taiwan to Macau - including two brothers, Shakhoboddin Isaev and Roma Isaev, from the British International School in Abu Dhabi - have been put through their paces at Zayed Sports City by registered coaches from the IIHF.

Since Sunday, the players have been divided into three teams of 17, trained on and off the ice, and competed in the evening in a round-robin tournament.

"It's been fantastic to watch all the players mix together," Tiikkaja said. "They did not know each other, and came from very different backgrounds, and there have been no problems.

"There are some good players here. The enthusiasm is there for all to see. We have roughly 50 kids here, and 50 people working behind the scenes as well and including coaches and referees. Everyone has enjoyed themselves. It's been a fabulous week."

 

ncameron@thenational.ae