Juma Al Daheri of UAE (in white) and Mohammad Al Doaij from Kuwait fight for the puck during the final of the second GCC Ice Hockey Cup in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: ABDEL-KRIM KALLOUCHE/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: Uma Mohammad Al Dhaheri is the Esmail Matar of UAE Ice Hockey. Football star Matar was selected as Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the Fifa Under-20 World Cup in 2003, while Al Dhaheri can boast three such Asian Ice Hockey awards in his long and successful career.

Al Dhaheri this week led the UAE to victory in the second GCC Ice Hockey Cup in Abu Dhabi. The team’s stand-in captain, who is also Secretary General of the UAE Ice Hockey Association (UAE IHA) and manager of services in the Abu Dhabi Ice Sports Club (ADISC), was a footballer in his youth, playing for Al Ain’s football school and junior teams up to the age of 14.

But he told Gulf News that the opening of an ice rink near his home went on to change his sporting destiny.

“I was a midfielder and Dr. Ahamd Al Mazrouei (captain of the UAE ice hockey team and chairman of both the UAE IHA and ADISC) was playing in the same team,” Al Dhaheri said.

“But in the early 1990s the ice rink at the Hili amusement park was opened and both of us started going there to learn skating. In a short time we were both good skaters, which made some Canadians who used to go there and play ice hockey convince us to join their team.

“There was not professionalism at that time and we were playing football as a hobby, so we just deserted the football grounds and started going to the rink to play ice hockey.

“Al Mazrouei, Mohammad Al Shamis and myself convinced some of our friends and relatives to come and play ice hockey and soon we gathered a number of enthusiastic players who formed a team from local players, which we called Al Ain Falcons. We were supported by the Hili ice rink, who used to buy the gear for us and brought in a coach for the team, in addition to allowing us to train for free. We started playing against teams from Abu Dhabi and Dubai and they were almost all teams made up of players from the foreign communities, mostly Canadians.”

Those modest beginnings would eventually lead to the building of a successful UAE team, but the early days were hard for those initial pioneers.

“The first ever UAE national ice hockey team was formed from the best local players in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain to take part in the Asian Cup in Hong Kong in 1998,” Al Dhaheri said.

“The UAE IHC, which was formed the same year, has a limited budget and could not finance all the expenses of the trip to Hong Kong, so the late Mubarak Bin Nawy Al Mazrouei, the father of Dr. Ahmad, donated Dh50,000 for us to buy tickets and pay for our accommodation.

“We won the Asian Cup in our first ever participation in a tournament outside the country and that was an achievement that led to the establishment of the UAE IHA with a bigger budget. In 2000, Shaikh Falah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan became the Honorary President of the UAE IHA and that was a big boost to the game.”

The UAE national team went on to win the Asian Cup again in 2001 and the Asian Professional Clubs Championship the same year, followed by the Baden-Baden Cup in Germany in 2003.

Al Dhaheri added: “The landmark and the most serious step in improving the UAE’s ice hockey came in 2007, when Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, received the team after winning the Asian Cup and ordered that the sport be taken under the umbrella of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council.

“That also saw the formation of the Abu Dhabi Ice Sports Club, which led to organising a local league with the participation of five clubs — Storms, Abu Dhabi, Dheeps, Al Ain and Mighty Camels, Dubai — and two other teams from 2008. The UAE Ice Hockey League is now the second-most improved in Asia behind the Japanese Professional Ice Hockey League.”

Al Dhaheri continues to excel on the ice hockey rink despite being aged 35 now, but his legacy looks set to continue thanks to his 16-year-old son, Mohammad, who is showing plenty of promise in the sport.

“There are some financial problems which prevent most youngsters from playing ice hockey, for example, the cost of the gear for children is about Dh6,000,” he said.

“But I am happy with my decision to become an ice hockey player. My son is a player in the UAE youth national team and played in the Asian Youth Championship this year. I am satisfied with what I did in this field and I am looking forward to more achievements.”