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Ice hockey in the desert: Will fans warm to the sport in the UAE?

updated 10:47 PM EDT, Sun September 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • UAE became first Arab nation to play an International Ice Hockey Federation world championship
  • International team is made up of part time players
  • Coaches of national team hail from Canada and Belarus
  • Football is fans' favorite sport in the country

(CNN) -- At first glance, the UAE seems ill-suited to ice hockey. The country boasts summer temperatures of up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees Celsius), and the only snow and ice to be found is usually in fabricated form in a shopping mall.

Despite the country's many disadvantages in championing the cold-weather sport, in 2010 the UAE became the first Arab nation to play in an International Ice Hockey Federation world championship. Granted, they finished last, but that hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of the handful of Emiratis who have taken to the sport.

"I feel so proud, so proud to be representing the country," says Mohamed Aref Al Jachi, a founding member of the UAE's national ice hockey team.

The first time Al Jachi saw snow was five years ago. Now, he trains with his team four nights a week at the Abu Dhabi ice rink. Coaches from Canada and Belarus -- two ice hockey heavyweight nations -- are helping the team learn the right moves. The process isn't always straightforward.

People sometimes say, 'You're a desert country, where do you play? In the desert?' Come on!
Mohamed Aref Al Jachi, UAE ice hockey player

"It will take time to teach," admits Lee Becker, the team's equipment manager, who hails from Canada.

"It's not something that's going to happen overnight. They have to take some time to adapt."

Some of the players admit that they don't always get taken seriously, being from the UAE.

"They sometimes say, 'Ah, you're a desert country. Where do you play? In the desert?' Come on!" says Saeed Al Nuaimi, a business student who plays on the team in his spare time.

Despite the players' enthusiasm, the fan base hasn't yet developed around the sport. At a recent regional tournament in which they played against Mongolia, the stadium seats were mostly empty.

"It feels bad," admits Al Nuaimi.

"But this game is not really popular in the UAE. People like football. But if they came to watch, it's a very fast and tough game, and they would enjoy it."

For many of the players, ice hockey is, at the moment, a side hobby. Al Jachi, for instance, has a day job as a government employee. And while many of the players harbor Olympic ambitions, for the time being, they're just happy to be playing.

"You don't have to win every time," says Al Jachi.

"Many teams play in the world championships and they never win, but they're still playing. They are saying, 'We are there, we can play the game.' This is our aim."

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