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Hockey Is For Everyone

Hockey dream comes true for UAE women's player

Fatima Al Ali shows off skills with Capitals, meets Alex Ovechkin

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / NHL.com Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Fatima Al Ali was shaking.

The 27-year-old from Abu Dhabi had been through a whirlwind of excitement since arriving in Washington on Sunday. But here she was, sitting on the bench at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Wednesday, watching Washington Capitals practice and waiting to get on the ice with them to show off her hockey skills.

Al Ali plays for the United Arab Emirates women's national team but she's relatively new to the game. She started playing six years ago.

So, yes, she was nervous thinking about getting on the ice with her favorite NHL team and player, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin.

"Everything," she said of the nerves she was feeling. "Heart beating, hands shaking, legs shaking."

Video: Fatima Al Ali skates with the Caps 2/8/17

But when Al Ali got on the ice and started stickhandling and passing the puck with the players, something interesting happened. They started talking to her like she was any other hockey player, asking about the sport in UAE, her experiences, about the stick she was using (it was borrowed from T.J. Oshie), and what kind of blade curve she prefers.

And, in that way, it felt like any other hockey practice.

"I was so nervous going on the ice, but once we started talking it just calmed down," Al Ali said. "We're just talking about hockey, something we all share, and something we all love."

This is why Capitals alumnus Peter Bondra calls Al Ali "a great ambassador" for the NHL's Hockey Is For Everyone month and its message about inclusion and diversity. Bondra met her at a hockey clinic in Abu Dhabi in November and was so amazed by her puck-handling skill he posted a video of her on Twitter.

But his admiration for her goes beyond her being able to cradle the puck lacrosse-style on her stick blade and make behind-the-back or between-the-legs trick shots. Since she was introduced to the game in 2008 while working as a website administrator and photographer for the UAE men's national team, hockey has become her life.

"She's coaching, she's reffing, she does everything there," Bondra said. "The people around the rink told me she's skating there every day."

Al Ali recalled when she started playing hockey six years ago, she was on the ice with children "4, 5, 6 years old."

"They were half my size, and they were looking up at me like, 'What is she doing here, on the ice with us?'" she said.

Now her hope is to inspire others in her country, particularly women, to take up the sport. According to the IIHF website, of the 802 registered hockey players in the UAE, 82 are adult women.

"Everything I started doing in my life I hope it inspires other people to do something and break the barrier in their culture whatever they're doing," Al Ali said.

Al Ali's visit, which was arranged by the Capitals and their airline partner, Etihad Airways, as a surprise Bondra sprung on her during a Skype call in December, became international news. There were crews from the "CBS Evening News," CNN and PBS, and every local television news outlet at practice to see and talk to her.

Ovechkin, a Moscow native, has fans all around the world, but said meeting and skating with one from a country not known for hockey was "huge."

"I told her I hope she's going to bring more interest in the game to her country and maybe it's going to be a new league because she got to meet some people out here," he said.

Video: Ovechkin talks about skating with Fatima

Al Ali called passing and shooting pucks with Ovechkin and his teammates "just a dream come true." Afterward, Ovechkin gave her an autographed game-used stick.

"I've just been [playing hockey] for six years and this was not expected," Al Ali said. "It's just unbelievable, and thanks to Peter and for everyone who made this come true. I just don't know what to say. I'm speechless."

Al Ali has gotten a full Washington-area experience while here with her brother, Mohammed. On Monday, they went sightseeing and attended the Washington Wizards NBA game against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Verizon Center.

On Tuesday, they toured the United Arab Emirates embassy and exchanged gifts with Ambassador Youssef Al Otaiba before attending the Capitals' 5-0 win against the Carolina Hurricanes.

A visit to the Capitals locker room after the game brought tears of joy. Al Ali stood there with her mouth agape when Ovechkin approached for an introduction. She later posed for photos with Ovechkin, Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom and several other Capitals.

"I was overwhelmed," she said. "It's just like a dream coming true. I've been working so hard to just be a better player, not expecting anything, just for myself. And then all this happens. It's just unreal. I don't know what to say. Now I'm going to start crying again."

Al Ali was scheduled to practice with the Washington Pride of the Junior Women's Hockey League later Wednesday. She'll be on the bench for warmups and drop the puck for a ceremonial faceoff before the Capitals' game against the Detroit Red Wings at Verizon Center on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; CSN-DC, FS-D, NHL.TV).

"To me, what's great about today is you think about [the UAE], you think a lady playing hockey in [the UAE], it doesn't sort of mix," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "But it's great. You see the smiles on our players' faces, her smile. She's a Caps fan, she's an Ovi fan, and why wouldn't you be? And then the guys, this generation of players now I think understand that there is diversity in the world and our game is for everybody. …To see what she's doing is fantastic.

"She's going to be a real role model, and I think it's a good symbol."

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