ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Khalid al-Suwaidi was mesmerized when he first saw Canadian and American expatriates playing ice hockey at the only rink in Abu Dhabi.
Al-Suwaidi, who like many Emiratis grew up playing football, had never seen anything so fast and physical. Without a coach or even friends to teach him, the 20-year-old started spending more time at the rink and turned to the Internet to find YouTube videos offering techniques and basic rules of the sport.
“When I saw my first hockey game, I said ‘I need to play this game,’” said al-Suwaidi, who has been with the United Arab Emirates national team for the past decade. “When I spoke with a lot of guys about the hard position in hockey, they said goalie. So I said I’d become goalie.”
Ice hockey would seem a tough sell in the Gulf, where temperatures routinely reach 40 degrees (104 C) for half the year. But a growing number of Emirati men and women are taking to the ice, inspired by the introduction of NHL games on cable television and the novelty of playing a winter sport in a desert region.
The sport’s growth in the past decade has contributed to the rise of the UAE national team, which has gone from a laughing stock — once losing to Kazakhstan 38-0 — to one of the region’s emerging powers behind the likes of Japan, Kazakhstan and Israel. It won the Challenge Cup of Asia in March for the second time and finished third in the Asian Winter Games last year.
The UAE’s success also has inspired other Gulf nations to embrace ice hockey, with Kuwait now hoping to join the UAE in qualifying for the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Division III, and Oman, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia starting their own national teams. Qatar also has started playing.
“The Gulf region is definitely a region which has grown very fast in the past couple of years especially in the UAE,” said Harald Springfeld, the IIHF’s Asian sports development manager. “Ice hockey is one of the newer sports and different to all the other sports in the region.”
At a 1,300-seat stadium tucked away in an Abu Dhabi sports complex, the UAE showed why it is the best team in the Gulf. The Emiratis routed Bahrain 12-0 to reach the final of the second Gulf Cup this month and then dispatched Kuwait 3-1 to win a second consecutive final. They outscored their opponents 42-4.
Except for the Arab pop songs blaring during the breaks, the four-team tournament would have been familiar to anyone who has watched a high school game in North America. There were moments of slick stick handling and sizzling slap shots from the dominant UAE side juxtaposed alongside signs of inexperience from the Bahrainis and Omanis, who occasionally struggled to stand up on their skates.
The crowds, while sparse for the semifinals, packed the arena for the final showing the sport is attracting a following in the UAE — though it remains far less popular than soccer, handball and volleyball.
“We are on the right path after all the training we did over the past months,” said Ebraheem Budebs, a 31-year-old defenseman on the national team.
“Winning the championship is something we are proud of,” he said of the Gulf Cup. “It will motivate the younger players and will help spread the sport in the UAE.”
The Gulf countries still have plenty of work to do to grow the sport.
Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait each have one rink that is shared with recreational skaters, while the seven in the UAE — including one in the country’s largest mall — are insufficient to keep up with demand and develop a new generation of players.
“The big problem is the ice. We don’t have enough ice rinks,” said Mohamed Aref, sports director for the UAE Ice Hockey Association, which is considering deploying cheaper, synthetic ice rinks that could be outdoors. “Without ice rinks, you will have limited number of players. If you’re limited in numbers, you will not grow the way you want.”
The sport also has struggled to get government support in the Gulf.
The UAE is a rarity in that it sanctions a federation that provides financing to develop the sport, host tournaments like the Gulf Cup, and cover the cost of players attending training camps and overseas tournaments. UAE players also get a small, monthly stipend and bonus for winning tournaments.
Kuwait, for example, had a thriving program from 1985 until 1992, but inactivity and political problems led to the country losing its IIHF membership until 2009. Sponsors are also hard to come by in the Gulf, forcing players to pay most of the cost of renting ice rinks and purchasing equipment, which can run into thousands of dollars.
“It’s a different sport and new sport. You’re playing on the ice in the middle of the desert,” said Bahrain team manager Mohammed Juma al-Doy, who has seen the number of players drop from 45 to 15 since the national team was started in 2009. “It’s growing but we need support from the government. We need facilities, more support to arrange for the good coach.”
Similar complaints were heard from Oman team manager Qassim Talib, who started the first team in 2008. Talib has mostly bankrolled the team since then and watched the numbers of players climb from five to 42. He was happy the team beat Bahrain to finish third, but admitted there are limits to what one man can do.
“Everyone is saying that my team is growing up,” Talib said. “But we are missing so many things — sponsors, an association. Without an association, we cannot do anything. It’s very costly. This is all at my expense.”
In the UAE, the issue isn’t so much expenses as bridging the gap with traditional hockey countries.
There are still only 532 Emiratis of all ages playing — up from 200 four years ago. But most of the senior players only took up hockey in their teens and are amateurs.
“You have to keep in mind the mentality of the local people. It’s very difficult working here,” said UAE Coach Yuri Faikov of Belarus, who has coached and played in his native country at the top flight. “You have to repeat moments even 1,000 times. You have to show nonstop. You have to work, repeat each element a lot of times.”
Despite the challenges, the stern-looking Faikov said the team is “getting results.”
After winning the Gulf Cup, the UAE is focusing on a qualifying tournament in October against Greece, Georgia and Mongolia that will determine which two teams return to the IIHF’s Division III. The UAE was demoted after failing to win a game in a Division III tournament in 2010.
Al-Suwaidi said he is confident the team will make it back and even dreams of the UAE becoming the first Arab team to challenge traditional powers in the 2013 world championship. But he admits there is only so much a team like the UAE can achieve — at least in his playing career.
“For the team, we hope to be best in world,” al-Suwaidi said. “But I don’t think in this life. It’s too hard man.”
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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.