x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

When grass roots of ice hockey need cultivating, UAE expats step up

Kevin Emore spent his winter break exploring his roots, playing hockey outdoors like he did as a child. Back in the UAE, he is ready to help the grass roots program grow.

Kevin Emore says the talent level in the UAE has risen, particularly regarding the women's teams.
Kevin Emore says the talent level in the UAE has risen, particularly regarding the women's teams.

Kevin Emore, the Al Ain Vipers player, spent much of his Christmas holiday going back to his hockey roots. Back in the UAE, he is very much part of helping the grass roots of the sport develop.

Picture the image of burly men carrying hockey bags and sticks on to the subway and you have an image of how Emore spent his recent break in New York.

The 31-year-old American and friends made the most of the chance of some outdoor hockey - the way the game was first played on frozen ponds and lakes - at a rink on the north tip of New York's Central Park.

"It was a great opportunity to play at Central Park, where all those who played hockey touch roots," said Emore. "It was a reunion of sorts with my friends, as we joined hundreds of men, women and children taking the subway to be part of the festivities in the outdoor rink. I played for a local New York team and it was great fun."

Emore's three-week trip, during the Emirates Hockey League's (EHL) winter break, also coincided with the National Hockey League's Winter Classic, an annual event when two NHL teams play a regular season match outdoors in a tribute to the sports beginnings when it could only be played during the winter.

"A football or baseball stadium is used as the rink, and this year's event in Philadelphia drew more than 46,000 crowd," Emore said. "Even the smaller events are sell-outs. It takes you back to your roots of the sport."

Emore counts himself lucky at being able to continue playing the game he loves as he has grown up.

Emore served in the US military for six years. As a captain, he spent more than 15 months in Iraq's Anbar province before leaving the services in 2008.

"I am one of those lucky ones to have got the opportunity to play hockey after leaving college," he said. "The military base in Germany was close to an ice rink, and I got to play there in a professional league, and two months in Australia.

"My father is a hockey fan. He didn't push me to it, but I knew he wanted me to play. I was involved in other sports, like American football, basketball and baseball, but eventually started playing hockey when I was nine."

While ice hockey has been played in North America for hundreds of years, the game is very much in the development stage in the Emirates. Emore has been involved in the EHL since its inception three years ago.

He spends one day a week helping Seanna Murphy, the UAE women's national team coach, train the squad.

He is enthusiastic about the future of the sport here.

"The EHL is much better than most people would perceive it to be, particularly those from North America and Canada," he said.

"The local players are much better than I thought, and for a young league it is pretty well organised. I have seen the evolution, not only the organisation but the level of play. It's got better each year, both in the organisation and the strength of the players."

Emore insists it is healthy for Emiratis to play against expatriates in the league because they can learn the intricacies of the game from them.

"And for the expatriate players with a decent background of playing at competitive levels [the standard] is high enough to play seriously because the competitions are more organised and teams are competitive and want to win," he said.

"That's a good thing in developing strong players."

Emore also says it is important that UAE ice hockey does not run before it can walk.

"The trend here is to achieve everything quickly, which you can't in hockey," he said. "There are no substitutes for practice, dedication and hard work to succeed in hockey, as in everything else.

"I am amazed by the progress the UAE has made in the development of a women's national team. To have the first national women's team in the Middle East is remarkable. It shows how evolutionary and forward thinking the country is.

"It's a real good thing to be a part of it."

He said he was pleased to see steps were already being taken to get children involved in the sport at a younger age. And he said that the foundations had been laid in Abu Dhabi to encourage the development of Emirati players.

"The coaches here make them comfortable, which is the right thing to do when you start on a new sport," he said.

"Showing good results at international level has an impact on the country's youth. There has been good financial backing and youth programmes to develop hockey. It is definitely going in the right direction."