Standing before nearly 18,000 fans, the captain of the UAE’s ice hockey team, Fatima Al Qubaisi performed a ceremonial puck drop kicking off a game between two American teams at the weekend as part of a special tour of the US.
The UAE National Ice Hockey team were guests of honour at the game between the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets held at the Capital One Arena.
The ceremony took place exactly a year after stickhandling superstar Fatima Al Ali was invited by the Capitals to the same arena. This year there was no famous selfie, but the team of sixteen were ecstatic all the same.
“At first I didn’t believe it,” said Fatima Al Mazrouei who plays forward for the Emirati national team and the Abu Dhabi Storms. “Then, when I was there I was so happy thinking UAE women reached this international stage. And it’s not only about UAE women, but women overall.”
The event was co-ordinated by the UAE Embassy in Washington DC in conjunction with the NHL’s ‘Hockey is for Everyone month’, during which the league runs initiatives that celebrate grassroots hockey as well as the game's growing diversity and popularity around the world.
The Capitals relationship with the UAE team developed when former Capitals player and NHL all-star Peter Bondra met Ms Al Ali while in Abu Dhabi for a hockey event. After noticing her stickhandling and tricks, he filmed a clip of her on his phone and tweeted it out. The clip went viral and the Capitals and Etihad invited Ms Al Ali to Washington DC.
“Fatima and her teammates encapsulate exactly what Hockey is for Everyone is all about — encouraging people of all backgrounds to play hockey and use the sport as a catalyst to teach essential life skills and the core values of hockey: commitment, perseverance and teamwork,” said Ted Leonsis, the owner of the Washington Capitals.
The team, who landed in the capital city on Wednesday have already watched a Capitals practice and run drills with two of the players and Mr Bondra.
“It’s just like a dream that’s come true,” said goalie Fatima Karashi as she watched the players walk in. “We’ve been playing for eight years and we’ve played in some tournaments, but to see professionals right in front of us, it’s actually more than I ever dreamed about.”
The players were equally impressed with the women.
“When I first found out that they were coming, I thought it was incredible,” said defenceman Madison Bowey. “Me, being an African-Canadian player, it’s obviously tough to get in the game and get involved, so I think the more diverse you see the game becoming, it’s pretty special. To see these girls here from Abu Dhabi and how in love they are with the game and how much fun they have on the ice, it’s really special.”
The Emirati team also scrimmaged with Washington Pride, a local team part of the Junior Women's Hockey League and met with lawmakers and government officials at the US Senate and State Department.
“It was really important for us to bring the team here as the Embassy is constantly looking for ways of highlighting the close relationship between the UAE and the United States,” said Dana Al Marashi, head of the Heritage and Social Affairs Department at the UAE Embassy.
“By having the girls have inter-squad games with American players where they’re able to talk to each other and talk about the love for their sport — it’s amazing to see the welcome they’ve received here.”
At a meeting with officials from the US State Department, players expressed interest in developing an exchange programme to bring professional American ice hockey players to the UAE.
“It’s a big honour for me to represent the UAE in Washington DC and be an ambassador for hockey and my country and it’s not only for ice hockey, it’s for women empowerment overall,” said Ms Al Mazrouei.
The team will next visit Chicago and Ottawa before returning to the UAE to prepare for the Asia Cup Hockey Tournament in March.