With good infrastructure in place like multiple oasis in the desert, the sport is in the pink of health in one of the unlikeliest places in the world. Amith Passela looks at ice hockey in the final of our five-part series.
UAE on the right path in hot pursuit of ice hockey glory
A reflection on years past in the UAE does not yield many memories of gathering places for Emirati teenagers, particularly during the summer.
Malls were not as ubiquitous and it was not as easy to get around. One of the trendiest places to escape the harsh summer period, though, was the Abu Dhabi Ice Rink.
Ali Kaddas Al Romaithi, popularly known as Ali Kaddas, was one of a group of Emirati kids who took a liking to the place.
He recalls there were two ice rinks in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. The first was the Al Ain Ice Rink at the Hili Fun City built in 1988 and the Abu Dhabi Ice Rink at the Sheikh Zayed Sports City constructed six months later.
Dubai, meanwhile, had a rink at Al Nasr Leisureland, built in 1987.
“For some of us, the ice rink in Abu Dhabi was the coolest place to go during the summer months,” he said. “We skated and danced disco on the ice. It was a nice place to hang around for us, with pizzas, hot dogs, and French fries to go with it.
“It became a meeting place for meeting new people and making new friends.
“But one day the security at the ice rink told us the ice was out of bounds for us because they had a hockey match.
“We had never heard of ice hockey before. We were puzzled and, out of curiosity, we walked up to the changing room and found some people wearing body protection.
“Then we saw them heading towards the ice with a stick and a flat black rounded thing, which we later learnt was the puck.”
Having watched the game, Ali Kaddas and his friends developed an interest in ice hockey. He has been involved in the sport ever since.
“Apart from football, volleyball, basketball and a few other sports, we had no clue of the various sports that existed around the world at that time,” he said.
“We had seen expatriates playing rugby and even cricket, which was popular among the Indians and Pakistanis, but never hockey on ice.
“We watched them skating and hitting the puck. We waited for more than an hour until they finished to enquire about this game.
“Our English wasn’t good at that time but they understood what we wanted. I met a guy named Jerry Marshall, who is now a Facebook friend of mine. He was the guy I first spoke to.
“I told him we wanted to know more about this game and he was kind enough to explain everything in detail from A to Z. I was impressed and told him I wanted to play this game.”
Marshall told the young Ali Kaddas to come back with Dh1,000 for his kit, which he would bring down in a week.
“It was a lot of money 25 years ago but I managed to raise the cash and, true to his word, Jerry bought my kit as promised,” he said.
“He taught me how to fit them on. I was a pretty good skater and skated like a bullet but with all that gear I moved like a tortoise. It was like driving a car for the first time but over a period of time I managed to learn the rules and the game.”
Some of his friends joined him and they soon became the group of locals playing alongside the expatriates. They played matches and established an unofficial league, which was first called Abu Dhabi Blades.
Juma Al Dhaheri, the UAE captain, and Mohammed Aref Al Jachi, the defender, are among the few who continue to play and hold important positions in the UAE Ice Hockey Association, which is recognised by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).
Al Dhaheri is the general secretary and Al Jachi is the technical director in the association.
“It has been a remarkable journey for us and we are very glad the sport is taking root among the Emirati youth. There is a lot enthusiasm shown by them, both boys and girls,” Al Dhaheri said.
“The UAE’s governing body for the sport is continuing to work on the recommendations of the IIHF and the results are already there to see.
“My wish is for the Emirates Hockey League, established in 2009, to turn into a professional league. I am quite sure it will happen.”
Already there are professionals playing for some teams. The number of teams in the EHL will increase to six with the Bears, made up of Russian expatriates, making their debut in the 2014/2015 season. The league season begins on September 22. “Ice hockey is on the move up,” said Ali Kaddas.
“It is well established now as a sport and will continue to develop with more participation from the Emirati men, women and youth, and of course the backing from the government.”
Recalling a turning point in hockey here, Ali Kaddas pointed to an influx of Canadians who worked for the company that managed the Sheikh Khalifa Medical Centre. Some decided to play their national game here and they formed a team named SKMC.
In 2004, that team merged with the Blades to form the Abu Dhabi Scorpions, the first private ice-hockey club registered with the Economy Department of Abu Dhabi, Ali Kaddas said.
He played for the national team as a goalkeeper but gave up the pads for an administrative role. He is the owner/founder of the Scorpions and the Godfathers team in the Abu Dhabi league.
He is also the technical affairs manager at the UAE Ice Hockey Association and represents them at the IIHF seminars and meetings as well as attending the camps and workshops organised and conducted by the world’s governing body for the sport.
Ali Kaddas is the first Emirati to qualify as an IIHF level-3 referee and is the head of the Emirates Ice Hockey Referees Society.
In 2009, the sport received a boost from the Abu Dhabi government, following their success in the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia, which they hosted at the rink at Zayed Sports City.
“A lot of good came from the success we had in winning the championship and for staging a successful competition, the first time in Abu Dhabi,” Al Dhaheri said.
“The sport has grown and developed unimaginably. Even before the success we achieved, we worked closely with the IIHF to develop the sport.”
Ali Kaddas recounts they had a handful of players when they first started playing in competitions.
“Today we have more than 350 players,” he said. “It took the parents a lot of time to understand the game and bring their children to the hockey schools because when they saw the NHL games on TV they thought it was a violent and hostile sport.”
They have had success, too, winning the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia twice, in 2009 and 2012, and have dominated the Gulf Cup by winning the biennial title all three times.
They were runner-up to Taiwan in the seventh staging of the Challenge Cup in Abu Dhabi in March.
There is more in store for ice hockey enthusiasts with a state-of-the-art ice rink nearing completion on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.
“Let’s keep that as a surprise,” said Ali Kaddas when asked when this facility would be inaugurated.
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