William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past nine years. Douglas joined in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the sport. Today, he profiles Ralph Melki and Lebanon's national hockey program.

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- Ralph Melki thought that there must have been some mistake.
Why else would the organizers of the Amerigol LATAM Cup call a coach and co-founder of Lebanon's national hockey program and invite it to play in the tournament in Coral Springs, Florida, in October?
"When I first got approached my first reaction was 'We're not a Latin American country,'" Melki said. "We're the Middle East."
The Lebanese Ice Hockey Federation's men's and women's teams competed in the tournament held at the Florida Panthers IceDen after being assured that it wasn't an error.
Lebanon found kinship with the Latin American and Caribbean countries and territories that are also striving to establish themselves on the international hockey stage and harbor Olympic dreams.
"You say, 'hockey, Lebanon, Lebanon, hockey?' It doesn't match," said Melki, a Montreal city bus driver who was born in Lebanon and arrived in Canada when he was 6. "But you can play hockey in the desert right now, so why not Lebanon?"


That was Melki's thinking when he, fellow Montreal resident Charles El-Mir and others founded the Lebanese program that's comprised of players of Lebanese descent who mainly live in Canada and the United States.
They're on a mission to bring ice hockey back to a country where basketball and soccer are among the most popular sports and someday compete in the Winter Olympics.
A lot has to happen for that to occur, including building an indoor ice rink in Lebanon. But Melki said the federation is up for the challenge.
"The idea is to bring back the sport of hockey and introduce that sport again to the Lebanese community by using the Lebanese diaspora all over the world because there are a lot of Lebanese all over the world, especially in Montreal," he said. "The idea was always to bring Lebanese together for the love of the game, for the love of the country."


Hockey used to be played in Lebanon, brought by Canadian expats and played at a rink that closed more than a decade ago and has since become a TV production facility.
He said the idea reviving the sport in the country began with Lebanese friends in Montreal talking their passion for the sport and how some other Middle East nations have hockey teams.
The conversation led to a fundraiser that attracted 1,100 people to a local rink, Melki said. A Lebanese men's team soon began barnstorming to draw attention to their cause.
"We created a monster, and that's when the whole adventure started," Melki said. "When there's an opportunity to go to a tournament anywhere, if we are able to make it, we are going to be there. That brings visibility and that's what we need if we want to bring the sport back home."


They reached the final of the Arab Cup in Abu Dhabi in 2018 and lost to a team from host United Arab Emirates 5-3.
The Lebanese Ice Hockey Federation earned recognition by Lebanon's Ministry of Youth & Sports in 2018 and the country became an associate member of the International Ice Hockey Federation in 2019 along with Algeria, Colombia, Iran and Uzbekistan.
The main obstacle to full IIHF membership for Lebanon is the lack of an indoor rink in-country, a hurdle shared by Colombia, Jamaica and other associate members.
"Once you have a rink and [host] a national championship in the country, then we become a full member," he said. "We'll need help, investors. It will be a challenge for us. We'll make it happen. It's always good to have a challenge and see what can happen."
Performing well in tournaments like the LATAM Cup raises Lebanon's hockey profile, Melki said, helping it attract more players and perhaps those much-needed investors for a rink.


Lebanon's Division I men's team finished 3-1-0 in round robin and playoff competition at the tournament while the women's squad went 2-3-0.
"Every one of us is not doing this for us right now, we're only doing it for the next generation," said Ricardo Tabet, a Lebanon defenseman from Montreal. "It's going to be a long process, but we're laying the foundation for kids to follow … to aspire to play for Team Lebanon and one day in the Olympics. That's whole goal."
Photos: Courtesy BC Photo