Many international tournaments have been played in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program in spring. And then there was also a premiere. Abu Dhabi hosted the first ever Arab Clubs Ice Hockey Championship as part of an on-going effort to boost interest in the game across the Middle East and North Africa.
The tournament brought together club teams from five different countries, several of which were playing in an international event for the first time. Aside from the host, Abu Dhabi Storms, there were entries from Team Lebanon and three North African sides: Carthage Eagles (Tunisia), Algiers Corsaires (Algeria) and Pharaohs (Egypt).
The teams played in a league format and the final game of the schedule proved to be the decider when the Storms took on Lebanon in a roller-coaster battle. After the host opened the scoring, Team Lebanon hit back to lead twice before Artur Zainutdinov grabbed his second of the game to put Storms back in front with two minutes left. An empty-net goal wrapped up a 5-3 victory for the Storms at the Zayed Sports City rink. The game was described as the finest ever played in the UAE, the Arab country with the best-developed hockey infrastructure.
More importantly, though, the tournament as a whole highlighted the rise of the game in a region rarely associated with winter sports.
Juma Al Dhaheri, Emirati national team player and captain of the winning team, said: “Competitions like the Arab Clubs Championship will certainly encourage more indigenous people, particularly the youth, to take up the sport. Our goal is to develop hockey in this region. We have created a pathway and the Arab Clubs Championship is part of that. Now there are more Arab countries ready to join us.”
Currently, many of the teams rely heavily on expats or players from more traditional hockey nations with roots in the MENA region. Team Lebanon, for example, is largely based in Montreal and works to promote hockey opportunities among the Lebanese diaspora in Canada while ice hockey is rather unheard of in Lebanon. Algeria and Tunisia also doesn’t have ice hockey (yet) back home while Egyptians only have small ice rinks. However, the competition also highlighted the progress made towards building the game among the local population, particularly in the UAE, which has its own national championship and enters teams in IIHF competition.
Dr. Ahmed Al Mazrouei, president of the UAE Ice Sports Federation, said: “The Federation is taking the first steps towards shedding light on those clubs that play a game that has long been considered exclusive to countries with a cold climate. This proves to the world that sport is not limited by geography or demographic factors.”
The tournament provided a valuable showcase for the game, attracting a significant online audience as the action unfolded. And representatives of both finalists were excited by the way the games played out.
Matti Fagerstrom, the Storms coach, said the championship had raised the profile of ice hockey in the region to a new level. “Leave aside the result, ice hockey fans witnessed a great match which had everything – the skills, speed and excitement – that a final game could provide. It means more sponsorships and more importantly attracting more viewers through live coverage,” the Finn said.
And Team Lebanon assistant coach Nabil Kamleh, part of the Dubai Mighty Camels in the UAE Championship, paid tribute to the rising standards of hockey among Arab nations. “I’ve been in Dubai for 13 years and we witnessed one of the best games ever in the UAE,” he said. “Last November I played for Lebanon in the President’s Cup but the standard has gone so high that I wasn’t able to play in this competition!”
Carthage Eagles took third place thanks to wins over Pharaohs and the Corsaires, and the Tunisians’ Adrien Sebag was named tournament MVP. Other individual awards went to Alec Sader (goalie, Lebanon), Vitali Savko (defenceman, Storms) and Alexander Pajusovs (forward, Lebanon).
The tournament also saw the announcement of plans for another hockey showcase in Egypt, pencilled in for the 2018/19 season. Pyramid Hockey will be a unique hockey game staged in the shadow of the Pyramids of Egypt. Apart from producing a spectacular event, it is also hoped that it will be a springboard towards establishing hockey in Egypt and getting recognition.
Ryan Bahl, a globetrotting hockey player from San Diego, California, was a guest on the Egyptian team in Abu Dhabi and is working with Mohamed Aref, one of the organizers of the Arab Clubs Championship, to develop the project.