Aiming to lift the game in the Gulf to unprecedented heights, boys and girls from Kuwait lived and breathed hockey during for the past two weeks in a pre-season camp in Sweden.
Despite still being on school holiday, players from the U12 and U15 categories at the Kuwait Ice Hockey Association's hockey school have found little time to rest on their laurels.
Having temporarily decamped from Kuwait to Sweden, the sole subject on the curriculum for two weeks was dedicated to ice hockey. The emphasis being on developing their basic skills and team bonding as the youngsters got up to speed for the impending league season.
“It's the first time we bring the Kuwait youth team here. It's perfect for us to be here as we can have four practices a day. We can practise outside as well as inside and we can watch recordings on how we can improve,” said Kuwait's youth team coach Bojan Zidarevic on their training camp.
Based temporarily in Koping, 150 kilometres west of Sweden's capital Stockholm, everything the Kuwaiti team could ask for was on offer at an arm's length. Adjacent to the hotel housing the players and staff made the most out of utilizing the ice arena and the sports centre.
While the Swedish late summer sunshine reached temperatures half of those in Kuwait, inside the rink Zidarevic was out on the ice together with former Kuwait national team player Abdullah Alzidan to instruct the players during a mid-afternoon session. It was the second time that day the Kuwaiti youngsters were out on the ice with the focus on stick-handling and skating. Boys and girls skated together with smiles beaming through their caged helmets. Two of the most energetic players were the Alfalah siblings.
“It is the first time I play hockey outside of Kuwait. Being in Sweden is a very nice experience and a good place to make the team become stronger as one,” said 14-year-old Fedha Alfalah, who picked up the game two years ago, which she now combines with gymnastics.
“Hockey and gymnastics are very different. I like hockey because it is fun, challenging and competitive. I am good with the puck and to get up to speed, but I need to improve my turns as my ambition is to play for the national team one day,” she said.
Four years her junior is Fedha's brother Mehson. Aged 10, he was the youngest of the crop of players in Sweden, but this livewire of a kid already stood out as a fine skater and eager of going places in his hockey career.
“It's fun to be here in Sweden although it is a bit cold. I also started to play two years ago and I hope to play in Kuwait, Sweden and also the USA,” said Mehson Alfalah.
Despite running a rigorous training regime during their brief Swedish stint, the Kuwait Ice Hockey Association was keen to find ways to inspire the youngsters with the rich pickings of high-level hockey on offer in the near vicinity.
“We went to the Globe Arena in Stockholm to watch an all-star tournament (Djurgarden Stockholm versus NHL players from Stockholm). It was really fun for the kids to see such great players in action and it will be a memory for life. The next day we took them to watch a game of junior hockey with VIK Vasteras. The players were the same age as ours and we wanted to show them that you can play the same game as they do, but for that, you need to practice,” Zidarevic said.
Sweden and Kuwait go back a long way as far as hockey cooperation is concerned. On 1 August 1981, Mikael Lundstrom, a newly examined coach touched down in the boiling heat of Kuwait City. His assignment was to form Kuwait's first hockey club and to find players willing to learn the delights of the game. Lundstrom's baptism of fire as a coach saw him stay in Kuwait for three enjoyable seasons. He later coached in Sweden's top division but also as national team coach of both Denmark and France.
Over three decades later, Sweden was chosen as the ideal place for regular training camps for the Kuwaiti men's national team eager to move on up in the hockey world. They reached a significant milestone when making their debut at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Qualification. But their lack of experience shone through and an aging team lost all three games. With the Kuwaiti national men's team now aiming to improve ahead of the 2019 Division III Qualification in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, their current head coach Pavel Arnost has instead opted to base the team's training camps in his native Czech Republic. Zidarevic, however, hopes to keep the Swedish connection alive with the next generation of Kuwaiti players.
“Hopefully we will come next year with the kids. Here we can find ice everywhere, but Sweden is also a nice country. People are polite to us and we have the possibility to arrange many friendly games here and find equipment for our teams, so it is a great place to get the players ready for the new season,” he continued.
Kuwait is about to embark on a landmark season which sees both their national women's team and the men's U20 making their debut at IIHF-sanctioned international competitions. Competing at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia Division I Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates and at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 Challenge Cup of Asia Division I in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is a sign that they are on the right track in their development.
“It is on a good way and the management is doing a good job. We have many kids at our hockey school with over 150 kids each year. We now have the men's senior team, the ladies’ team, the junior national team, U15, U12 and our hockey school. With practice the result must come one day,” said Zidarevic.
As other winter sports such as figure skating and speed skating grow in popularity and with curling about to take off in Kuwait, plans for another ice arena are in consideration. Sweden could be the source of inspiration in their future project as the Kuwaiti coach Alzidan exclaimed in awe when entering the 13,850-seater Globe Arena for the first time last week. “We need one of these too in Kuwait!” he said.