For someone who was not aware that ice hockey was played in the UAE and never saw a live game until the age of 18, Fatima Al Ali has made remarkable progress as a player and referee.
In the 10 years since she chanced upon the sport, the Emirati has gone on to represent the national women's team and become the first Arab woman to officiate at a IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) World Championship. In fact, she has done it twice: at the women's Under 18 championships in Austria, in 2016, and in Hungary, in 2017.
Al Ali would have officiated in a third major tournament, in Mexico in February, had she been able to recover in time from an injury she suffered after crashing against a rink wall while refereeing an Emirates Hockey League (EHL) game.
The first time she found out that ice hockey was being played in the country was when she came across a newspaper advertisement providing details of the inaugural Arab Cup at the Zayed Sports City Ice Rink in 2008.
“I was a freelance photographer at the time and the organisers requested me to cover the tournament,” she said.
“After the tournament I was asked to continue with the work I did for them, and while on the job I kept learning of the game. To learn the rules I attended the refereeing clinics. That’s how it all started for me.”
Al Ali picked up the sport at just the right time. The national women’s team were established in 2010 and she joined a year later.
“As a kid I watched The Mighty Ducks [an American movie about a minor ice hockey team] and some other hockey movies, and had a fair idea of the sport,” she said.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Al Ali went on to become a national team player as well as a referee officiating men’s games in the EHL. She also officiated in the President’s Cup and the inaugural Arab Club Cup involving foreign teams.
In 2016 the Emirati became an online sensation when the former Washington Capital player and NHL All Star Peter Bondra tweeted a clip of her stick-work on his phone while on a visit to Abu Dhabi.
The clip went viral and the Capitals and Etihad Airways invited Al Ali to Washington the following year. Twelve months later the UAE national women’s team were invited as guests of honour.
UAE captain Fatima Al Qubaisi performed a ceremonial puck drop to kick off a game between two NHL teams, the Washington Capitals and the Columbus Blue Jackets, at the Capital One Arena in Washington.
During that visit Al Ali got to meet her favourite player, Alexander Ovechkin, and her favourite team, the Capitals.
“It was a dream come true," she said. "I had the best experience and time of my life from watching the game, meeting the players and skating with them. We talked about hockey and UAE mostly."
In her youth Al Ali competed in athletics and football. She made rapid progress in learning to skate and adapting quickly as a hockey player.
She was officiating matches involving women and children when Joy Johnston, the EHL’s first chief of games with over 20 years experience, advised her to also start taking charge of men's games.
“I did [officiating] for fun and never wanted to be a referee, particularly the men’s games, but Joy convinced me," said Al Ali, who is now employed at the Fatima bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy. "I gave it a shot and now I'm enjoying it.
“Thereafter I attended the clinics and began officiating games. I started from Under 9 and Under 12 games, and when I got better with the calls and positioning, I went into the next level.”
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At 28, Al Ali has already fulfilled some of her dreams. But she has also set herself new targets, which include officiating the women’s senior World Championship as well as the Winter Olympics.
“That’s a dream not only for me but everyone in sports, whether it be an athlete or an official. All of us crave the opportunity to either participate or officiate at the summit of the sport,” she said.
“It's not easy to get to a World Championship or Olympics. That takes a lot of hard work and dedication, but step by step hopefully one day I wish I can reach that level and realise my dream.”
For now, Al Ali will be in action for the Abu Dhabi Storms in the four-team inaugural GCC Women’s Club Cup, which got under way on Wednesday and will conclude on Saturday at Zayed Sports City.