x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Popularity of ice hockey in UAE drives demand for two new rinks

Plans have been discussed to knock down the existing rink at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi and replace it with two new arenas.

Plans are afoot to knock down the existing rink at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi and replace it with two new arenas.
Plans are afoot to knock down the existing rink at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi and replace it with two new arenas.

The Government is set to sanction the construction of two ice hockey rinks in the capital to help satisfy growing interest in the sport and underline the national team’s ambition to compete in the top tier of the international game, according to a leading UAE ice hockey official.

Plans have been discussed to knock down the existing rink at Zayed Sports City (ZSC) and replace it with two new arenas, which would increase the number of Olympic-standard rinks in the country to four.

“We have been talking to the Government about building two rinks in ZSC where the present one stands,” Mohamed Aref, the country’s ice hockey technical director, said.

“We need more ice rinks and I believe that will happen. Right now we have one Olympic-sized venue in Dubai [at Dubai Mall], one in Al Ain and this one in Abu Dhabi. Just imagine if we get to 2015 with the same amount of rinks? By that time the sport will have grown even more. How would we cope with so many people?”

There is also a fourth standard-sized rink at Al Nasr Leisureland. Abu Dhabi Scorpions and Abu Dhabi Storms, the two teams who use ZSC as their home venue, would need to find a temporary alternative if the work went ahead at the venue in the capital.
Aref said interest in the sport is growing in part because of the UAE’s success in international competition.

“I think it is because the national side were the first of any UAE teams in sport to win a proper trophy,” he said. “The men have taken silver and bronze from the Asian Winter Games. We also won the 2009 Challenge Cup of Asia.”

The news comes on the back of comments by Jukka Tiikkaja, the Asia development manager for the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), that the UAE was struggling to cope with the growth of the sport.

Tiikkaja was attending a training camp at ZSC last month for some of the best under 17 players in Asia.

Faisal Saeed, a member of the UAE team that won bronze in the 2011 Asian Winter Games, welcomed the news that more top-class rinks would be built.

“I had heard this is going to happen and that is unbelievable,” Saeed said. “I’m so proud of how big ice hockey has become in my country and the structure we have now. However, we do need more rinks.

“There are a lot of kids waiting to play this sport, but we don’t have enough ice time for them. If we had more rinks, then we could really move the sport forward. We need to expand and I hope we do that.”

The national team hope to reach the third division of the world game in 2013 by emerging from a tough qualification process, which would then grant them entry into the World Championships – a competition contested by the three divisions of teams in world ice hockey. The goal is to become the first Arab nation to compete with the game’s traditional powerhouses Canada, the US and Russia.

Domestically, there are also plans to expand the Emirates Ice Hockey League, which currently has five teams. Aref welcomes a bigger league to provide further competition for the Al Ain Vipers, the Dubai Mighty Camels, the Scorpions, the Al Ain Theebs and the Storms, but does not want to sacrifice quality for quantity.

“We would only allow a sixth team to join if they were going to be competitive,” he said. “That is the only way we can take the league forward.

“We will go into our third season on October 5 this year and each year the play has got better. So we would not want to ruin that by introducing a side that wasn’t good enough.”

ncameron@thenational.ae