UAE ice hockey players triumphed despite a lack of practice
The triumphant UAE team will be relieved their next major tournament is on home soil after the circumstances which threatened to undermine their challenge at the Challenge Cup of Asia.
Already feeling apprehensive and under cooked because they had not trained for five days before their departure, Yuri Faikov, their coach, would have been hugely concerned about the preparations when what should have been a straightforward four-hour flight to northern India took 26 hours.
The connecting Kingfisher Airlines flight from New Delhi to Dehradun was cancelled forcing the team to travel by road.
And there was more frustration when the tournament was delayed by a day because the ice was not ready.
"We played the first game without being on the ice for seven days," Mohammed Aref Al Jachi, the UAE defender, said. "The players were worried on the lack of match fitness but we managed to win that all-important first game [4-3 against Thailand].
"That was the result we wanted and having got that game out of the way, the confidence was back and then we started to improve with every game. To get that first game out of the way was really the key to our success."
It turned out to be their toughest test of the tournament. They romped to victories over Kuwait, Chinese Tapei, Malaysia and Thailand, again in the final, scoring 38 unanswered goals.
Winning the tournament for the second time in four years - they finished runners-up in the other two years - underlined the UAE's status as the best team in Asia.
Al Jachi, who is also the technical director of the Abu Dhabi Ice Sports Club - the governing body for the sport in the country - said their dominance is a result of the strength of the domestic league.
The backbone of the national team play for the Abu Dhabi Storms who were involved in a three-game final play-off with the Dubai Mighty Camels last month.
The national federation also receive regular feedback from the sport's governing body and inaugurated an Under 20 league earlier this year as part of a stipulation of being an International Ice Hockey Federation-sanctioned country.
"We work very closely with the IIHF and on their recommendations," Al Jachi said. "The Emirates Hockey League has had a lot to do for the improvement on our game. I think we are the only team that plays in a strong league in which we have players from established hockey nations like Canada, the United States and Europe."
The UAE are blessed with Olympic standard rinks in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
"Every time when we tell someone we play ice hockey in the Emirates, they get surprised," Ebraheem Budebs, the UAE defender who scored the second goal in Sunday's 3-0 final victory, told IIHF.com.
"They ask us where we play and then I tell them we have a few ice rinks. We love sports and it's not generally only the ice."
The success of the ice hockey team is arguably the UAE's biggest sporting success story outside of the football team who qualified for the World Cup in 1990 and this summer's Olympics.
"If we go back to 1990, we qualified for the football World Cup finals in Italy," Budebs said.
"This is the biggest sporting achievement we have had [since then]. Based on what we did in ice hockey in the last 10 years, people started to think there is a sport in which we can achieve something for the country. We have had some success and the sport has started to thrive."
Lee Becker, a Canadian who is the UAE national team's equipment manager, said he can only see the sport going from strength to strength in the country, particularly following the launch of the U20 Emirates Hockey League earlier this year.
An eight-team U12 Gulf tournament was also staged in the capital in December while Dubai Bantam Sandstorms U15s travelled for an international tournament in Sweden in February.
"The strength comes in numbers," Becker said. "In the UAE, there is now a demand from the juniors too. Like hockey and North America, hockey and the UAE are very similar. They like to joke around, they like the games, not much as individuals but work together as a team and the development of the team."
Next up for the UAE is to retain the Gulf Cup in Abu Dhabi in May.
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Published: March 26, 2012 04:00 AM