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Hockey Is For Everyone

United Arab Emirates women's team gives back to community in trip to U.S

Visits Washington, New York, Boston; helps Special Olympics World Games in home country

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Fatima Al Ali tried to contain her emotions while taking in all that was going on around her on the ice at MedStar Capitals Iceplex on Feb. 4.

The 29-year-old was surrounded that day by teammates from the United Arab Emirates women's national hockey team and girls from the American Special Hockey Association at a workshop that began a 10-day tour in the United States, which also included stops in New York and Boston. Al Ali's eyes welled up with tears of happiness while talking about giving back to the sport that has brought her experiences in the past three years she never imagined.

"Spreading the game is one of the best things that someone can do," Al Ali said. "That's the least you can give back to hockey. Looking at all these girls and all these athletes and more people getting into the sport, it makes you overwhelmed. I'm so happy."

This all began with a chance meeting between Al Ali and Peter Bondra when the Washington Capitals alumnus visited her hometown of Abu Dhabi to help run a youth hockey clinic in November 2016. That sparked a friendship and led to an invitation to Washington to celebrate the NHL's Hockey Is For Everyone initiative about inclusion and diversity in February 2017.

Al Ali returned to Washington a year later with the entire UAE women's team for a trip that also included stops in Chicago and Ottawa. When the UAE team began talking with the Capitals about coming back this season, they wanted to do something more than be tourists and watch NHL games.

"Last year was amazing because we were here for the first time and all of us were shocked," UAE forward Fatima Al Mazrouei said. "We met a lot of great players. It was a really good experience. We [learned] that if you work hard, you will gain. If you want to raise the sport and raise awareness about women's sports in the world, you have to work harder for it.

"So we came back this year to give back to the community."

That became the team's theme. Their Twitter hashtag for the trip was #ComingBacktoGiveBack.

When the UAE team sought ideas on how to do that, Capitals director of community relations Peter Robinson suggested doing something with the American Special Hockey Association. The connection made sense because the UAE is hosting the Special Olympics World Games, which started on March 14 and end Thursday, and several of the women's team players are serving as referees in the roller-skating event.

The Capitals have a long relationship with ASHA, which was founded in 2000 for players with developmental disabilities and uses hockey as therapeutic tool to instill confidence, responsibility and socialization. Washington captain Alex Ovechkin has hosted events with ASHA players each of the past five seasons.

ASHA has 82 clubs and 174 teams across the U.S, including ones in New York and Boston. That worked out perfectly for the UAE team's trip.

After the clinic at MedStar Capitals IcePlex on Feb. 4, they went to the Capitals' game against the Vancouver Canucks at Capital One Arena on Feb. 5 and traveled to see the New York Rangers play the Boston Bruins at Madison Square Garden the following night. 

With help from Rangers alumnus Tom Laidlaw, the UAE players conducted an outdoor clinic with ASHA players from the Central Park North Stars at Lasker Rink in Central Park on Feb. 8. From there, the UAE team traveled to Boston to see the Bruins host the Colorado Avalanche at TD Garden on Feb. 10 and wrapped up their goodwill tour with another clinic with ASHA's East Coast Jumbos at New England Sports Center in Marlborough, Massachusetts on Feb. 12. 

Tweet from @SpectrumWarrio1: What an AMAZING morning for the #NorthStars Thank you #UAE #Womens #Hockey team for giving all of us such a memorable experience! Thank you @specialhockey #HockeyIsForEveryone

"It seemed liked a perfect tie-in," Robinson said. "They'd be able to do clinics in each different city, meet multiple different teams, and if they wanted to do a charitable donation, they'd be able to make huge impact in those three cities and nationwide by giving directly to ASHA as a whole."

A donation from the Embassy of the UAE and Yousef Al Otaiba, Ambassador of the UAE to the United States, enabled ASHA to purchase 120 sets of new equipment. That was particularly helpful for the North Stars because many of their players rented equipment, but it benefited other AHSA programs as well.

"The word transformative is used all time," ASHA executive director Jennifer O'Brien said of the UAE's donation. "This isn't just transformative. This is life-changing the amount of equipment that we're sending to new hockey teams developing and a couple of existing teams."

O'Brien joined the UAE women's team at each of the stops on its trip, returning to her home in Binghamton, New York in between each to pick up more of the equipment, which she stored in her basement. O'Brien called it an honor for her to be part of the trip and noted a significant similarity among the players that others might not recognize.

"In our early conversations, the embassy said to me, 'You wouldn't think there would be a team of women from a Middle Eastern country in the middle of the desert playing hockey, but you have to believe it's possible'," O'Brien said. "And I said, 'Well, if you have special needs and no one believes that you can play [hockey], you might as well be sitting on the other side of the ice looking at dry ice.' So we're all in the same boat, so let's play."

And that, ultimately, was what the tour was about.

"I just feel like bringing us all together should make a point to people," UAE forward Khulood Shugaa said. "This is a game for everyone. Everyone should play hockey."

The clinic at MedStar Capitals Iceplex was different from the ones in New York and Boston because it was specifically females, including 26 ASHA players, ranging in age from 7 to their mid-20s, with eight teams from Virginia, Maryland, Washington, Pennsylvania and New York, and nine coaches.

Haley Skarupa, a forward on the U.S. Women's National Team and the Boston Pride in the National Women's Hockey League, who is from Rockville, Maryland, lent a hand as one of the instructors and brought her gold medal from the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

"It's always an unbelievable experience to be able to share your passion about the sport with other people from across the world especially," Skarupa said. "Being there with the UAE team and the ASHA organization, it was the first time for me and it was super exciting. It just goes to show how far the sport has come for everyone and for women everywhere across the world."

Getting to see Skarupa's gold medal was one of the highlights for Ann Schaab, a 14-year-old with Down syndrome who plays for the Washington Ice Dogs, but she also appreciated the opportunity to spend some time with and learn from the UAE players.

"I had never skated with those guys in my entire life," Schaab said. "This is special for my team and myself."

The UAE players equally enjoyed the experience. Seeing the joy on the special hockey players faces gave them another lifetime memory.

"In UAE, we call them people with determination," Shugaa said. "I think it's amazing to be involved with them and have fun with them. We did have fun. I just hope they did too."

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