In the Arabian Gulf, temperatures regularly measure in the triple digits. That fact alone would make the area a highly unlikely place for ice hockey to find a home. Yet, the sport has become increasingly popular in the region, and the International Ice Hockey Federation is taking note.
"The locals have really improved. They are training six days a week, two to three hours a day. We used to beat them with hockey sense and knowledge. But they're starting to get that now."
-- Hugo Blomfield
While the United Arab Emirates has been an IIHF member for a few years now, their involvement in international ice hockey has accelerated since 2008. Inspired primarily by Sheikh Falah bin Zayed al Nahyan, a member of Abu Dhabi's ruling family and current president of the UAE Ice Hockey Association, hockey has taken off in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi, as well as other Emirates, particularly Dubai.
"When I moved to Abu Dhabi, all I brought was my work clothes, warm-weather clothes, and my hockey gear," said Hugo Blomfield, a Canadian expat who moved to Abu Dhabi for work in 2007 and currently plays defense for the Abu Dhabi Scorpions of the Emirates Ice Hockey League. "[At first] we had maybe 20-30 guys. We kind of just did a few drills, practiced a little bit and then scrimmaged. The rink itself was Olympic size but kind of run down. It didn't have any proper benches or boards. It was mediocre quality."
Before long, more and more games and tournaments were springing up around the Gulf and in 2008 Abu Dhabi hosted the inaugural Arab Ice Hockey Championships. The UAE side -- split between locals and expats -- topped Kuwait 4-1 in the championship game and, just like that, ice hockey was as popular as ever in a region where cold-weather family activities are few and far between.
Encouraged by the Arab Ice Hockey final, local officials -- with the blessing of the royal family -- looked to take the next step toward building ice hockey in the Emirates. That crucial step wouldn't just build the sport in the region, but also carries weight with the IIHF.
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As a result, the Emirates Hockey League was founded in 2009. Consisting of five teams, including the Scorpions, Dubai Mighty Camels, and Al Ain Vipers, the league is made up of locals and expats and provides a strong training ground for the Emirates' national team.
"The national team, all they did was practice and didn't really play. Occasionally they would play against us before going off to a tournament. We were middle-aged guys drinking beers and we would beat them 8-0 or 9-0," Blomfield said. "They developed this EHL to have a local league that met the IIHF requirements and give their team more competition and the ability to play against expats on a weekly basis."
Every indication is that the IIHF has noticed these efforts to cultivate hockey in the Emirates.
This past summer, Abu Dhabi hosted an IIHF hockey development camp in which players from 10 different countries, including India, Malaysia, and Singapore, participated in a variety of team and coaching activities. The event spotlighted the UAE's regional dominance, as well as the increasing demand for rinks and equipment; demand fed by an influx of Western expats moving into the area.
"The level of play is hugely varied," said Nigel Howard, a hockey-loving Brit who moved to Dubai recently for work and plays regularly in a local recreational league. "It's a non-checking rec league, so there is a fair display of fancy passing and individual skill as well as those who've only being playing the game for a few years. Top end: ex-NHL players; low end: people like me."
The game has become so popular in the United Arab Emirates that former NHL stars like Jari Kurri
and Claude Lemieux
have visited the area to play, contributing even more to the overall quality of play in what might be the world's least likely hockey hotbed.
"The past couple of years, a pro team from Russia has come with guys who have played in the KHL. There is also a team from the Czech Republic that comes, [as well as] a team from Switzerland. A team from Finland came last year. Dubai is now more the international focus," Blomfield said. "The locals have really improved. They are training six days a week, two to three hours a day. We used to beat them with hockey sense and knowledge. But they're starting to get that now."