Ice game hit with desert youngsters

Ringette, a game similar to ice hockey, has taken off at Zayed Sports City under the careful guidance of Finn and French volunteer coaches.

Abu Dhabi’s first Ringette squad, the Rafales, practise at the ice rink at Zayed Sports City. They are guided by two volunteers, Finnish woman Merja Hedman and Frenchman Eric Muchery. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
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ABU DHABI // The desert may seem an unlikely place for kids to learn ringette – a Canadian and Scandinavian ice-skating game.

But three times a week at Zayed Sports City, a dozen children of varying skills between the ages of 5 and 12 lace up their skates and strap on helmets before hitting the ice rink.

They are guided by volunteers Merja Hedman and Eric Muchery through warm-ups and drills.

Ringette is very similar to ice hockey. Players wearing ice skates try to score in the opponent’s goal across a field of ice.

Instead of a hard puck, ringette players pass a rubber ring, which they control using a straight stick.

The sport carries a reputation of being a “soft version of hockey” for girls, perhaps because it started out as a girls-only game in 1960s Canada.

But it has since become popular with both genders, says Mrs Hedman, 50, who grew up playing ringette in her native Finland.

“It’s such a wonderful, unique game and everyone who loves skating can enjoy it,” she says.

After moving to Abu Dhabi with her husband, Mrs Hedman launched the ringette group to encourage girls and women to get active.

She received a donation of new helmets, sticks and rings from Ringette Finland and the International Ringette Federation.

About the same time Mrs Hedman was trying to promote ringette at Zayed Sports City, Mr Muchery, a former ice hockey player, wanted his two young sons to have skating practice.

“We met Merja and she had all the stuff – I mean the sticks, the helmets,” says Mr Muchery, 50, who is from France.

They agreed to work together to form the first ringette group.

“It’s a mix of fun and practice and skills altogether, so for kids it’s perfect because they really improve their skating skill without thinking about skating,” says Mr Muchery.

The sessions are held at ZSC every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday and open to any child who can ice skate.

To take part, parents need to pay Dh30 for each 90-minute session.

If a child needs to rent skates, there is an extra charge of Dh10.

Mrs Hedman and Mr Muchery volunteer their time coaching the children and organising the games.

“My background is in sports management in Finland so when my husband came here to work, I needed something to do,” says Mrs Hedman.

“I have so much time, I need something useful. I sort of want to give back while I’m here.”

Mr Muchery designed the team’s kit and came up with their name, the Abu Dhabi Ringette Rafales, which is French for “bursts.”

He says he loves watching the children progress with their skating skills while having fun.

“When I’m not here I miss this moment, really,” says Mr Muchery. “It’s really a nice moment with kids and as everybody is happy.

“For me, it’s the best feedback I can have. I don’t need money, I don’t need recognition, I need just the smiling of the kids. That’s it.”

Their efforts do not go unnoticed by the parents of the young players.

Joo Ryou, 40, a South Korean, says the guidance and playing opportunities offered the two have helped to build her eight-year-old son’s confidence.

“My son last year joined and they helped a lot to support him. They taught from the bottom,” says Mrs Ryou.

Her son now plays ringette and ice hockey.

“When we were in Korea, it was very difficult to find ice hockey. It was difficult and expensive as well.

“But when we came here to the desert, it was like, ‘how can you put that in the desert? It’s amazing’.

“He was a very shy boy before but after he began playing ringette, he became say very proud of everything and his school life has also changed.

“Absolutely I want to say that Merja and Eric’s support is very amazing.”

For more information about the recreational ringette group, visit the Kids With Sticks – Ringette Abu Dhabi page on Facebook.