ABU DHABI – The United Arab Emirates take another step in developing hockey when their new national league starts on Wednesday with the inaugural game between the Dubai Mighty Camels and the Abu Dhabi Scorpions.
Tournaments and competitions between various hockey teams have been taking place in the country since the 1990s, but it’s the first time that an official national league is organized.
Running a league with at least four teams and at least 15 games per team is one of the requirements (IIHF Minimum Standards) to take part in the IIHF World Championship program.
The country will participate with its men’s national team for the first time in the 2010 IIHF World Championship Division III Group A in Athens, Greece, next spring.
Last season, the Emirates hosted the Challenge Cup of Asia in Abu Dhabi and won the tournament ahead of Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Singapore, Macau and India.
The other requirements are to have an operational artificial indoor ice rink meeting the standards as stated in the IIHF Rule Book with a seating capacity of not less than 500 spectators, at least 60 registered players in the respective category, and an active and operational hockey development program for educational purposes, which shall include not less than 100 registered participants.
Tonight’s game of the new Emirates Ice Hockey League at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi will be the biggest step in developing hockey in the country where the thermometer hits 38° C during this period.
The climate conditions make ice hockey not exactly the most traditional sport in the country, but escaping from the heat to winter sports seems to become a new trend in the Gulf States. The UAE have four ice arenas, Kuwait – another IIHF member country from the region – has three. And in 2005, a 22,500-square metre indoor ski resort opened in Dubai.
“We have everything we need to help the UAE team grow and play professional hockey,” Mohammed Aref told The National. He is the technical director of the Abu Dhabi Ice Hockey Club, a driving force behind the league and a national team defenceman.
The league will be played during a six-month period, not only in the capital city, but also in Dubai and Al Ain with playoffs to be staged in Dubai.
The league rosters indicate that ice hockey was originally a sport practised mostly by immigrants from North America and Europe as some of the clubs have existed for a long time and organized by foreigners working in the UAE.
Three of the five teams – the Abu Dhabi Scorpions, the Al Ain Vipers and the Dubai Mighty Camels – are expat teams but the league has also two teams consisting of Emirati players, the Abu Dhabi Ice Hockey Club and the Al Ain Ice Hockey Club.
The two latter teams will form the national team, and they will play each other on Friday in Al Ain, the fourth-most populated city of the country. The mix of local and foreign players is meant to help develop hockey and the UAE national team.
The Dubai Mighty Camels are probably the best-known team, but not only because of the witty fusion of the North American-style name and logo with the local animal. They’ve been running their own expat league since the ‘90s and they organize an annual international tournament that has also hosted amateur clubs from classic hockey nations.
“Starting this league is a very significant step of the game in the UAE,” said Aref. “You develop the national team from the league. If you have no league, you have nothing. It’s good for the national team players to compete against the expats. They are strong players and have a different hockey mentality.”
The new league is also a milestone in bringing teams from the different Emirates and regional leagues together. Arif hopes that if the league operations are running well in the inaugural season, and that more clubs can be added next year.
Hockey shall also be developed at the grass roots. Ten days before launching the league, the Abu Dhabi Ice Hockey School opened its door as part of the development program that also included a junior summer camp.
The UAE Ice Hockey Association has currently 200 hockey players: 80 men, 10 women and 110 juniors.
Prior to its World Championship premiere in Athens, the national team will participate in an unofficial tournament in Thailand and also in a tournament with teams from various Arab nations which will be hosted in Abu Dhabi in November. They will also play in the 2010 IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia before travelling to Athens.
“Once we see how this year goes we can build from here,” said Aref. “This is a busy year for us and we have very big hopes.”
One of the biggest challenges for the league at the moment is the lack of referees. To the four refs, the UAE added Ryan Harb from Canada this season, but the games still have to be officiated with the two-man system.
The United Arab Emirates will play against Luxembourg, Greece and Ireland in the 2010 IIHF World Championship Division III Group A, April 13-17. The World Championship program includes men’s national teams from 48 countries.