Yahya Al Jneibi and Fatima Al Ali: Ice hockey officials representing UAE on the world stage

A bright future awaits Yahya Al Jneibi and Fatima Al Ali, who lead the way for Emirati ice hockey officials, writes Amith Passela.

Joy Johnston, right, Emirates Hockey League (EHL) chief of games official, with Fatima Al Ali, Referee in the EHL. Reem Mohammed / The National
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ABU DHABI // The standard of officiating in the Emirates Hockey League (EHL) is being recognised by the game’s ruling body with two of its referees picked to take charge of games at international age-group tournaments next year.

Yahya Al Jneibi and Fatima Al Ali will become the first Emiratis to officiate at an International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship.

Al Jneibi has been picked to officiate at the Under 18 World Championship Division III in Taiwan and New Zealand in March. Al Ali, the first Emirati female referee, will take charge of games at the U18 Women’s World Championship Division I Qualification in France and Poland in January.

“They are given the opportunity. If they do well, they get to move to the next level and the next level. As individuals they can go high,” said Joy Johnston, who has helped nurture the two Emiratis in her role as the chief of games officials at the EHL.

The Hungarian Ice Hockey Federation invited both Al Jneibi and Al Ali to a training camp in August to gain experience.

Johnston says Al Jneibi and Al Ali have been given the opportunity because the IIHF believes officiating is a growing prospect for nationals to get more involved in the game in the UAE.

“The UAE is making good programmes and good progress. That’s why they are given this opportunity to go for international tournaments,” Johnston added.

Al Jneibi, 25, a former police officer, is being groomed as Johnston’s successor at the EHL.

Johnston became the first female EHL chief of games official when she was hired at the start of 2014/15 season on a 12-month contract. The 32-year-old Briton has more than 20 years experience playing and officiating games in her home country and came recommended by the IIHF.

She says Al Jneibi is the ideal candidate to succeed her.

“I had a great first season in the EHL. The objective now is to find if I can nurture an Emirati to take this programme forward and to the next level,” she said.

The EHL found Al Jneibi last year and Johnston travelled with him to Frankfurt, Germany, to have a meeting with the IIHF.

“They saw a lot of good things in him. They saw he could make a difference in the country,” she said. “When they saw and spoke to Yahya, they felt it can happen.”

Following the meeting, Johnson returned to the Emirates to hand over her responsibilities to Al Jneibi and “give him all my knowledge and show him everything, how it’s working”.

The Emirati also made “a big commitment”, Johnston said, which was to “stop playing and take over the officiating side”.

“The only way the sport and the officiating programme will grow for locals is when it is run by a local,” she said. “To have the game run and to have good games you need to have good referees, and Yahya understands that.”

According to Johnston, a veteran of more than 12 years experience officiating in the UK’s elite Super League, Al Jneibi had already been earmarked by her predecessors as a man with plenty of potential.

“Last year I was the supervisor for the Challenge Cup of Asia in Kuwait. I took Yahya as a linesman and he did a good job. He had done it before, but that’s the first time I had really seen him” in that role, the Briton said.

He made a lasting impression with the Emirati being fast-tracked into the country’s top ice hockey referee role less than 12 months later. Al Jneibi, a police officer of six years, says he never envisaged a career as a referee.

“I never had any idea of becoming the chief of games official. Joy has had a very hard time in her first season in the EHL, and it was she who encouraged me to get involved full-time,” he said.

“She got my contact somehow and then managed to convince me. Now that I have made my commitment, I’m looking ahead for the new season.”

So what makes a good referee?

“You need a good knowledge of the rules, must have a good level to skate well and a good level of fitness. These are the kind of skills one needs,” Johnston said.

“You also need to be presentable, able to communicate, be calm, show yourself when the situation gets crazy. You need to be able to manage people, to have good strong conversations, and have respect. Yahya has them all.”

Al Ali, 25, a former player on the UAE women’s team, said she wanted to better learn the rules to improve her own game.

“Joy and Yahya are the ones behind me. But when we have the kids’ tournaments, all of them involved in officiating offer their support and encourage me, like giving me their feedback, which helps me a lot,” she said.

The EHL conducts a certification process for its prospective referees every year. The candidates must attend a seminar and take a paper and video rules exam.

“They have done all of those, and Fatima and Yahya have done more as they also went to Hungary for a training,” Johnston added.

“Tactically they have passed everything, and now we need to give them the games experience.

Johnston is refereeing less matches this season and supervising more.

As well as Al Jneibi and Al Ali, several other nationals also take charge of EHL games.

It is essential that Emiratis such as Khalid Al Qubaisi, Bilarab Al Battash, Dhahi Furesh, Ali Kaddas and Yousuf Mubarak, take over the reins for the game’s long-standing future here, according to Johnston.

“This sport is played a lot by the expatriates and they come and go, so we need the locals to carry on with the work that we are building on for the future,” she said.

“The expatriates have a lot of skills and experience but we still want the locals to run and officiate games.”

Johnston, who is also a training supervisor, is married to a Canadian banker and says she will return home to the UK once her contract with the EHL expires.