Despite her age and size, Anna Lee stood out among the 51 players and was the only girl who took part in a week-long training camp in Abu Dhabi.
Twelve-year-old girl takes on big boys twice her size in ice hockey
Anna Lee stood out among the 51 young ice hockey players who took part in a recent week-long training camp in Abu Dhabi. She was one of the youngest and smallest players on the ice — and the only girl.
But the 12-year-old netminder from Abu Dhabi said she loves the thrill of having players twice her size come crashing in as she tries to block the rock-hard puck whizzing towards her.
Lee, who attends the Canadian International School, plays for the Abu Dhabi Storms in the Emirates Ice Hockey League and has also turned out for the senior women's team on occasion.
"I played in defence for a few years and it was only last year when I went in goal for the first time," she said. "I fell in love with being a goalie.
"Now I want to continue playing for the rest of my life. I'm not sure how easy it will be for a girl to make a career from ice hockey, but it's something I would like to try."
The training camp brought together some of the best under 17 players from across Asia under the supervision of the International Ice Hockey Federation. Participation in ice hockey continues to grow in the UAE, among expatriates like Lee and Emiratis, too.
"The training camp was a lot of fun," Lee said. "I met a lot of new people and nobody teased me for being the only girl."
Lee said she is used to the size disadvantage she often faces. What she lacks in stature, she makes up for in bravery - as anyone who has watched her stand up to the bigger players that fly towards her goal can testify.
"I'm from a Canadian-Swedish background so there is a lot of ice hockey tradition there. My parents watch me in goal and I know they think I'm a little bit crazy when the guys hit into me," she said.
"I do get hurt sometimes, even with the padding. It's that kind of sport. I play against a lot of boys for the under 12s and they don't let me off because I'm a girl. Goalies are usually big, but I don't mind being a bit smaller and I don't think it's a problem."
She travelled to Hong Kong last month with the UAE women's team for the Asian Championship, one of five expatriates in the team. "We didn't win any matches but it was a great experience," she said.
In addition to expatriates from countries where ice hockey is part of the culture, the recent training camp attracted several Emirati players, too.
Saif Salem, a 12 year old who attends Suqoor Model School in Abu Dhabi, said he believes that one day an Arab player will make the breakthrough to the National Hockey League in North America.
"I'm sure a lot of people around the world wouldn't understand that a hot desert country could produce a top ice hockey player," he said.
"However, because the sport is growing so fast in the region, I can see someone from the Middle East making the big time.
"I just love it. My friends are always on at me to come and play football, but ice hockey is my life. It's fun, exciting and really fast. More and more Emiratis are taking up the sport and they all seem to really like it."
Matt Fagerstrom will take over as the coach of the Abu Dhabi Ice Hockey School at Zayed Sports City later this year. The Finn played and worked with the Abu Dhabi Storms, and coached the national team for a short period, too.
His only problem is finding room for the number of children who are looking to get into the sport. There are 242 registered junior players across the country.
"From the under 18 level down to the skating school, which is for the really young kids just starting out, we have 130 players and are completely full up for next season," he said.
"We have 30 to 35 in every group and it's about half and half in terms of locals and expats. The future looks really bright for the sport in this country.
"If you had asked me 18 months ago about playing ice hockey in the desert, I would have laughed. I originally came to the UAE just for a visit as some friends were here and I couldn't believe the quality of the rinks and how many people played the game."