ABU DHABI // The national ice hockey team are the new favourites at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Asian Challenge Cup after Chinese Taipei, the defending champions, opted out of the continental championship to held in Kuwait next week.
Chinese Taipei edged out the UAE 3-2 in the final of last year's event, which they hosted.
Their withdrawal denies the Emirates squad, who won the title in 2009 as hosts, a chance for revenge in the week-long event starting on Sunday. "We don't really know why they are not travelling, but that doesn't make the competition any easier," Ebraheem bu Debs, a national team defender, said. "We are the favourites, but that doesn't guarantee us the championship. We still need to go out there and win every game."
This year's championship will be played in a league format, with the team that finishes with the highest points declared the winner.
Participating with the UAE are Hong Kong, India, Kuwait, Macau and Thailand. In addition to Chinese Taipei, other nations not participating in this year's tournament are Malaysia and Mongolia.
The UAE squad is the same that won the bronze medal behind Kyrgyzstan, the hosts, and Thailand in the Asian Winter Games men's premier division in February.
"We had been training ahead of the Asian Winter Games and then continued to play as a team in the Emirates Hockey League, which we won," bu Debs said.
"Basically we have been playing together as a team for more than four years when we were preparing for the Asian Challenge Cup in 2009, which we won. All the national team players represent the Abu Dhabi Storms in the domestic league. So we know each other very well as players.
"We also had a camp in Al Ain which was to get our focus on the competition.
"I feel the team is ready and obviously we want to regain the Asian title. It doesn't matter whom we play, we can only play those who are in the competition."
Matti Fagerstrom, the Storms' coach, has been appointed the national team coach. The 28-year-old Finn, who joined the Abu Dhabi club in July, has been in charge of the national team for two weeks.
"They are a very experienced side, having participated in the Asian Challenge Cup, the World Championship Division Three [tournament in 2010] and the Asian Winter Games," Fagerstrom said.
The UAE became the first Arab nation to play in the IIHF World Championship when they took part in the Division Three tournament at Luxembourg in April last year, finishing the tournament in the bottom team behind Ireland, Luxembourg and Greece.
The UAE won the inaugural Gulf Cup in Kuwait last year and were set to host the 2011 championship that has been postponed to next year following the political unrest in some Gulf countries.