While Thaler Al Mohannadi laces up his skates, the afternoon call to prayer echoes over the Villaggio ice rink. He’s one on several Qatari players to participate in this year’s Desert Cup, and a regular in the Qatar International Ice Hockey League (QIIHL). ‘I started watching these guys, you know, and I love the game. So I just started training at my house, or even at night. I just had the stick and the gloves, and that’s it. I practised practised and practised,’ he says from his spot on the bench before the A division game starts on Saturday morning.
But Mohannadi has to be quick, because any second he could be called to jump onto the ice. ‘It’s a fast game, and you must think fast, play fast, I love this kind of game,’ he says.
It’s a game he plays, even in multinational Doha, with lots of Canadians. But this year, in the 10th year the Qatar International Ice Hockey League has been heating up the ice, and the fourth year the Desert Cup has been making work for Zambonis (those truck-like vehicles that resurface the ice), he’ll be among the Qatari players to battle it out against expats and nationals from all over the region. The Desert Cup brings in teams from all over the GCC, each with a mix of expat and national players – particularly the teams from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which boast a large number of Emirati players. This year they hope to put forward at least four teams from Qatar, with another four teams travelling to compete.
This year also sees the formation of the Qatar Olympic Hockey team which, even though they didn’t qualify for the Asian Games, still is a huge leap forward for a country with no natural ice. ‘That in itself is a success, because seven months ago, we didn’t have anything. Now we have a team of probably 27 Qatar national kids who are interested in playing the game of hockey, who are very motivated, and they want to play,’ says Gordon Penney, one of the coaches of the Qatar Olympic Team, and a player himself in the Qatar International Ice Hockey League. ‘A lot of them always had the skating skills, because they skated at City Centre and stuff like that, but they never put their hands on a hockey stick or equipment.’
Currently, the QIIHL is divided into an A division and B division, separated by calibre of play. And according to Penney, the plan is to eventually form an all-Qatari team in the B division to help them develop. ‘Anybody with any athletic ability will say, “hey, that’s not a bad sport,” but it’s an aggressive sport – we play gentleman rules here, it’s just not so aggressive, you’re not checking or anything or taking really hard slapshots, but with the Qatari National team they have to do that stuff,’ says Penney. ‘So they need that aggression. And actually the guys do.’
But either way, it’s a game many people remember fondly. ‘I played all my life in Canada. Pond hockey, river hockey, never rink hockey. When I came to the UAE in 1998, I started playing in a rink. And when I came over here to Doha in 2006, I just kept on playing,’ said Mike Walsh, from Mirimachi River in New Brunswick, Canada, and one of this year’s organisers of the Desert Cup.
‘Last year because most of our games are played on Thursday night, Friday and Saturday, there were a lot of people in the food court areas watching the games,’ he says. They take the tournament seriously – carefully organised, so players and spectators can travel to watch the games, and complete with trophies at the end.
‘For men, it’s trying to keep their youth. You go out there, you have a good skate, and you just feel good afterwards. It makes you feel as if you’re not as old as you really are sometimes,’ says Walsh.
And it wouldn’t be a Doha sporting event if there weren’t at least a handful of nationalities on the ice at any given time. ‘You’ve got your stereotypes when you’re in Canada,’ says Walsh. ‘But when I came over here, I found some of the most intense players of the game were the eastern European players. They’re really into it in a big way, especially the younger guys. The Swedish and the Nordic are what we call the silent intensity: they’re not loud, but they play pretty hard. But the characters in the game, by and large, are Canadian. The ones that give you the little extra flair, have a little extra talking going on, bring the flavour to the game.’
It’s that extra flair that they all agree attracts people to ice hockey. Many players, like Mohannadi, are initially attracted by the speed – it’s a fast game, with players coming on and off the ice every few minutes, and the puck whizzing past faster than any football or basketball.
The annual Desert Cup draws a steadily growing crowd, as people passing through the food court stop to see what on earth is going on on the ice. ‘Most of the people over here in this part of the world know field hockey. So I tell them, just take field hockey, use a lot more gear, go a lot faster, and you’ve got ice hockey,’ says Walsh. ‘I don’t think so much they understand what it is, but I do notice that they pick up on the vibrancy or the excitement of the game. They feed off us.’
He adds: ‘We always joke that it goes back to the roots of hockey in Canada when they started playing and they were outside on ponds, and it was -40 below. So unless you were vibrant, unless you were moving around and yelling and screaming, you’d freeze to death.’ For many players, the Villaggio rink is a huge step up from where they started – even if you don’t count potholed ponds, driveways or the Rideau Canal. When the league first started in Qatar 10 years ago, they couldn’t even play with pucks: the glass at the City Centre rink would have shattered if someone had smacked a puck off it. Instead, someone brought back bright orange street hockey balls from a visit home to Canada and a handy supply store.
‘The rink at Villaggio is an international-sized facility, so it has a lot to offer for us. We used to play at the City Centre, which just really wasn’t the true game of ice hockey. We played with a ball, and it was four on four. Either way we were still fanatical about it,’ said Penney.
True to form, Penney says many of the players from the Qatar teams, as well as the visiting teams at the tournament, are Canucks. It was the Canadians the Qatar Olympic Committee approached when they wanted to set up a National Hockey Team. And it was the Canadians who very politely approached random skaters they thought had talent to see if they wanted to try hockey. ‘I’m a big history buff, and I always say Canada has a hard time identifying itself in between the UK and the US. And when you throw in the Francophone element too, the Canadian identity can get pretty confused. But if there’s one thing I think everyone across Canada buys into as being Canadian, it’s hockey,’ says Walsh.
‘I think we become very involved in it, I know you look over here and when we have the Olympics on and the juniors and everything, people stay up all hours of the night in Doha watching it. It’s us – it’s part of Canada,’ he adds. ‘You know the Canadians, it’s their game, we learn from them,’ agrees Mohannadi.
The Desert Cup is from March 10-12 at the Villaggio Ice Rink. Check out www.qiihl.com for the full schedule. Games are free for all spectators