UAE: How a desert country fell under the spell of ice hockey

From humble beginnings in the 70s, the sport is making waves among both Emiratis and expatriates

By Leslie Wilson Jr; Visuals: Neeraj Murali

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Published: Wed 25 May 2022, 7:12 PM

Last updated: Wed 25 May 2022, 8:27 PM

The figure in a baseball cap, sports jacket, and spotless white kandura stands out in a sea of people, mostly European and American, watching an ice hockey game at Al Nasr Leisureland.

He shakes his head, smiles, and winks, as he follows the exciting game in progress on the 60-30 metre rink.

As a former player himself, Dr Mohammad Al Redha knows what it takes to compete in such a unique discipline which, strange as it may seem, has been played in the UAE for over three decades.

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“Sport is an enormous part of UAE culture, and we play it as a pastime,” he says. “So it’s not unusual that ice hockey is a popular sport in our country.

“Having been involved with ice hockey since the 1990s, I can say that the sport has come a very, very long way and things are looking bright.”

Today, the sport is more organised, and Dr Al Redha goes down memory lane.

The UAE now has a federation, five ice rinks, a championship-winning national team, a league, and over 800 registered players all over the country. These include 80 women players and the passion for ice hockey is growing.

So what makes ice hockey such an attractive sport to people who live in a desert country?

Dr Al Redha’s reply is resplendently imaginative. “Ice hockey is two sports — skating and playing with a stick. You need to master one before you master the other,” he says. “It’s a very attractive sport.”

He says it's also 'very easy' once you get the balance right, after which you perfect your hand-eye coordination to be able to hit the puck.

Some observers of the sport say ice hockey made its way into the UAE in the seventies when the Al Nasr Leisureland ice rink was opened. At that time, most players were expatriates. However, Emiratis did not wait long to join the ice hockey fraternity.

The breakthrough came in 1987 when the Al Ain Falcons team was founded and an ice rink was opened in Al Hili, Al Ain. Another rink came up at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi in 1988. Soon, the game began to spread in the country.

It gained in popularity when ice hockey-loving Canadians, Americans, Europeans, and Arabs came together to form the pioneering Dubai Mighty Camels in 1994.

Originally set up as a social group rather than a sports club, the Camels would go on to become the most successful team in the UAE, winning four titles in the Emirates Hockey League.

Nabil ‘Billy’ Kamleh, a former player and currently a coach, says: “When I moved here in 2006, we only had one league, but now we’ve doubled in size and expanded.

‘Fastest game on two feet’

Celebrated as one of the ‘fastest games on two feet,’ ice hockey is by no means a mainstream sport but one which is a lot of fun to play and watch. With the emergence of more qualified coaches and skilful players, enthusiasm for the sport has skyrocketed.

At the grassroots level, Sandstorms Ice Hockey Club has been championing the game among juniors since 1997 and its president, Tonia Psycharis, says: “The club started with 15 players and has grown to 140, ranging from ages 5-18, playing in six different divisions. What is great about our Sandstorms youth organisation is that it is volunteer-based and coached by passionate parents who have had hockey experience themselves. Their aim is to pass on that passion for the game to their children. We are just so proud to develop the kids into great hockey players.”

Despite the inconvenience, hockey players must wear the full equipment, which includes padded pants, gloves, a helmet, and several other general pieces of padding.

Traditionally, hockey sticks are made of hickory, ash, or mulberry wood with the head of the sticks being hand-carved and, therefore, requiring skilled craftsmen to produce them.

Young talent

The heavy gear does not deter young Christian Psycharis, whose mother Tonia is president of the Dubai Sandstorms. Christian has been playing the game since he was a kid. “I have fun on the ice,” he says. “I can really connect with some other people from back home. It's where I can be myself and escape stress.”

Another player, Nolan Murphy, was born in Dubai and took to the ice when he was five. “It all started when I was very young and fell in love with the game. I haven’t stopped since,” he says. “It’s a very competitive game but it’s also a lot of fun.”

His sister, Olivia, also started playing at a very young age. “It's kind of interesting playing the game over here in Dubai and I have a lot of fun playing with the guys. They test my skills and durability,” says Olivia.

Tonia Psycharis recalls how a former SandStorms coach, the late Ron Murphy, once reflected on the club's growth. "We first got together over 30 years ago with a simple vision – to form a club to pass on our love of hockey to our children. We now have more than 140 children playing and more than 20 different nationalities involved,” he had said.

National team going places

With the growth of the sport in the Gulf region, the UAE national team has emerged as a big player, delivering winning performances in the Arab Cup, IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia, and Gulf Ice Hockey Championships.

The crowning moment came in April this year when Juma Al Dhaheri, who boasts over 100 UAE caps, led the team to victory in the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Div III-A in Luxembourg.

The performance would earn the team promotion to the second division. Having played in their first IIHF tournament in 2010 and taken four years to score their first win, it was the culmination of years of hard work and planning,

“It was a very proud moment for us to have our national team reach the second round of qualification in such a prestigious tournament,” says Dr Redha. “Congratulations to the players for that achievement, We can now look forward to greater success. The sky’s the limit. And as the Carpenter’s song goes: ‘We’ve only just begun.’"

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