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Hockey Is For Everyone

Capitals help female fan from UAE realize dream

Fatima Al Ali set to visit Washington, meet Alex Ovechkin, attend practice, game

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

Peter Bondra's trip to the United Arab Emirates in November began as a chance to play hockey with some old friends and experience a different culture.

The decision by the Washington Capitals alumnus to help run a hockey clinic during his stay in Abu Dhabi led to a meeting with Fatima Al Ali and, this week, the fulfillment of a dream for the 27-year-old member of the UAE's women's national team.

As part of the NHL's celebration of Hockey Is For Everyone month in February, Al Ali is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Sunday and be the Capitals' guest at practice on Wednesday and their game against the Detroit Red Wings at Verizon Center on Thursday.

Bondra, who had 892 points (503 goals, 389 assists) in 16 NHL seasons before retiring following the 2006-07 season, said Al Ali is looking forward to her visit.

"We exchanged a couple texts," he said. "She's a little bit nervous. It will be overwhelming for her just to come to the game or to [meet] the team. I'll be around and help her as much as I can."

Video: Caps surprise Fatima for Hockey is for Everyone Month

In Al Ali, Bondra sees the embodiment of Hockey is for Everyone's message of inclusion and diversity in the sport.

"She's amazing," he said.

This all began when Bondra was invited to play in the Presidents' Cup tournament for the host Abu Dhabi Storms, along with fellow Slovaks Miroslav Satan, Richard Lintner, Lubomir Visnovsky, Rastislav Pavlikovsky and Andrej Nedorost. The tournament field also included the Emirates Hockey League All Stars and teams from Belarus, the Czech Republic and the Republic of Georgia.

"When I told the Capitals I was going to this, I said I could to do a little hockey clinic and represent the Capitals," Bondra said. "So we put together, at the last minute, just a two-day camp."

According to the IIHF's website, there are 802 registered hockey players in the UAE, including 386 adult males, 82 adult females and 334 junior players. Bondra was impressed by what he saw, which included a practice with Abu Dhabi's under-18 team.

"There's some talent there," he said. "There's not talent where you have 20-30 players that are equal. There are some guys that are a little better or have been on the ice a little bit longer or learned hockey a little bit earlier than others. But for such a young hockey country, I was pleased."

One day, when Bondra was being interviewed by a television crew that accompanied his group to Abu Dhabi, he noticed Al Ali.

"She stepped on the ice with no skates on and she started puck-handling," Bondra said. "I stopped doing the interview and said, 'Hold it. Let me see what's going on here.'"

Bondra was mesmerized watching Al Ali lift the puck onto her stick blade, swing it around lacrosse style and then bat it up in the air.

Tweet from @PeterBondra12: This is Fatima. She represents the UAE on their women's national team & it's safe to say she has better hands than me! @Capitals @MSE @NHL

"I asked if I could record what she does with the puck, because it was amazing," he said.

Bondra posted the video on Twitter and it went viral. He then started asking around the arena to find out more about Al Ali.

"People told me she's at the rink every day, she skates every day," he said. "Later I found out she was the first female sports photographer in the country."

From talking to Al Ali, Bondra learned she was introduced to the game in 2008, when she was working as a website administrator and photographer for the UAE's men's national team. When she told him the Capitals are her favorite team and captain Alex Ovechkin is her favorite player, Bondra was stunned by the coincidence.

Before leaving the UAE, he told her, "If you travel to Washington and you want to go to a hockey game, let me know. I will bring you and I will take care of the tickets. I will take you to the game."

A few weeks later, Al Ali texted Bondra that she was thinking about coming to Washington in February and asked if his offer stood. By then, the Capitals and their airline partner, Etihad Airways, had already begun planning a surprise.

"They started preparing to have Fatima come over and to make her dream come true to see an NHL team and to meet Alex Ovechkin," Bondra said. "Especially with February being Hockey Is For Everyone month; it just became the right way to do the right thing and invite Fatima to come over."

When Bondra told Al Ali the good news during a Skype video chat in December, she cried tears of joy. In addition to attending the Capitals' practice and the game against the Red Wings, she will participate in a practice with the Washington Pride of the Junior Women's Hockey League, visit the UAE Embassy and do some sightseeing.

Bondra can't wait to watch Al Ali show the Capitals what she can do on the ice.

"I'm curious to see how the players, Alex, will react to this," he said. "I know the Capitals have unbelievable, great talented players. I'm pretty sure they can do whatever she does.

"But if I look at myself, I'm just trying to be honest, it would be hard for me to complete whatever she does with the stick."

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