When Canadians assemble in any numbers, these seem to be among their most important considerations: 1) organizing a Terry Fox Run, 2) displaying some maple leaf flags (so people don’t mistake them for Americans) 3) agitating for the imminent arrival of a Tim Hortons and 4) setting up a hockey league.
Far as I can tell, then, hockey has been played in the UAE almost from the moment someone created a chunk of ice and enough Canadians were here to organize a game, and that would require only a dozen of them.
The Emirates Hockey League by no means is a Canadian monolith — some Yanks are involved, and more than a few Finns, and even some Emiratis, who perhaps are at first intrigued by large slabs of ice and then just come to love the game.
Tonight, I saw Game 1 of the Emirates Hockey League championship series … and I was very impressed by what went on.
These guys can play. More than a little. A reporter from The National, who a few days earlier had seen the Desert Bowl, involving the new American football league, said the caliber of competition at the EHL match was much higher.
The EHL has five teams, and the Al Ain Vipers and Dubai Mighty Camels presumably are the best, at present, because here they are in the championship series.
I don’t know exactly what I expected from the game, but generally it would have been “slower, sloppier and more random”. I saw none of that. I saw two well-organized teams, doing the things you expect hockey teams to do. Efficient line changes. A bit of rough stuff. Putting shots on goal. Some really nice skaters. Some quick guys. Setting up for the power play in the regular way. A scoreboard that worked. (No small thing, in a country where top-flight soccer teams rarely have a scoreboard at all.) An announcer. Apparently competent officials.
The periods have been shortened to 15 minutes, for the sake of the age of the competitors (at least one goaltender is 46) and the reality that they don’t train like professionals because they have day jobs.
Games are played in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which have ice rinks, and the season stretches on for quite some time. (Shades of the NHL).
This year’s finals were put at risk by the breakdown of the Zamboni machine at the Dubai Mall, and Game 1 was shifted to Abu Dhabi, specifically the Zayed Sports City complex, which includes a big stadium but also a tennis stadium, a bowling alley, lots of fields — and an ice rink.
It was fun to watch. Hockey is one of the best in-person sports experiences — when you can hear the shush of skates on ice, and the thwack of sticks striking pucks, and see the whole of the rink, including the inevitable angry shoving match. It can be a compelling spectacle.
The Mighty Camels (shades of the Mighty Ducks?) led 2-1 after a period, but the Vipers got three in the second period, including a fluke go-ahead goal. One of their guys had just stepped out of the penalty box (OK, granted, the Camels ought to have had one of their defenders tracking back; the goalie had not done the usual “pound the ice with 10 seconds left on the penalty” thing), when the puck went flying past him. He chased it down and, with nothing between him and the net but the keeper and he flicked in a nice shot from a steep angle, and that put them in the lead for keeps.
The Vipers won 5-3, and they have two ways to secure the championship tomorrow. By winning outright at Dubai Mall (the part for the Zamboni has arrived!), or by winning the special 20-minute tiebreaker/game after Game 2, to be played if the Camels win.
(They might have just extended the league a few days, but so many of the players base vacations and work schedules around the league ending on March 13 that extending things even a day was just not going to fly.)
If the game were in Abu Dhabi, I might well go back and see how it turns out.
I recommend the EHL to anyone who likes hockey, or just wants to see some guys playing hard inside a nice, cool arena, or for someone who wants a little bit o’ Canada in their lives.