ARLINGTON, Va.-- What started with a chance meeting has led to a hockey dream trip for members of the United Arab Emirates women's national team.
Washington Capitals alumnus Peter Bondra encountered UAE forward Fatima Al Ali at a hockey clinic in Abu Dhabi in November 2016 and was so impressed by her puck-handling skill, he posted a video of her on Twitter that went viral. That led to an invitation to Washington to skate with the Capitals and attend a game during Hockey is for Everyone month last February.
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The visit went so well that UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba suggested that Al Ali return this season with her teammates. The Capitals and the UAE Embassy worked together to make it happen and the UAE women's national team arrived Wednesday for an 11-day adventure that will include attending NHL games in Washington, Chicago and Ottawa.
"I'm so excited to be back, especially with my team," Al Ali said. "They're looking forward to the whole trip. They arrived last night and I think most of them didn't sleep because they are so excited."
A full day of activities Thursday began with handful of players visiting with U.S. Senator Dick Durbin from Illinois at the U.S. Capitol. Then, the entire team went to Kettler Capitals Iceplex to watch the team practice.
After the Capitals finished practice, the UAE team took the ice for a practice with Bondra and current Capitals Madison Bowey and Chandler Stephenson helping to run the drills.
"These girls, their skill level is through the roof for them just starting five or six years ago," Bowey said. "Definitely, I'm impressed with them. The most important thing for me was just seeing how much they loved it and seeing the smiles on their faces."
After their practice, the UAE players had lunch with Capitals chef Robbie Wood to learn about sports nutrition and received a tour of the locker room. Later Thursday, they were scheduled to attend the Washington Wizards' NBA game against the Boston Celtics at Capitals One Arena.
They will return to Capital One Arena on Friday for an inter-squad game with the Washington Pride of the Junior Women's Hockey League in the afternoon and to participate in a ceremonial puck drop before the Capitals' game against the Columbus Blue Jackets (7 p.m. ET; NBCSWA, FS-O, NHL.TV) as part of the team's Hockey Is for Everyone month women's theme night.
After spending the weekend in Washington, and touring the U.S. Capitol and visiting to the UAE Embassy on Monday, the team will head to Chicago on Tuesday, where it will practice on Wednesday and watch the Chicago Blackhawks morning skate at United Center on Thursday before attending the Blackhawks' Hockey is for Everyone game against the Anaheim Ducks.
Then, the team will fly to Ottawa, where the players will skate on the Rideau Canal, practice with a girls' team and attend the Ottawa Senators' game against the New York Rangers on Feb. 17. After that, they'll return to Washington on their way back to UAE on Feb. 18.
The UAE players appreciate that opportunities like this trip are rare for female athletes in their country. According to the IIHF's 2017 survey of players, of the 802 registered hockey players in the UAE, 82 are adult women, and there just four ice rinks in the country.
"It means a lot for us to be here and having this experience with NHL players," forward Fatima Al Mazrouei said. "I encourage every woman in the Middle East to stick with what they love as a sport and keep doing the best in it."