Washington’s latest experiment with hockey diplomacy started with a 27-year old woman, wearing a Capitals jersey and a hijab, trying to make her heart stop pounding and her legs stop shaking.
Fatima Al Ali, a soft-spoken hockey fanatic from the United Arab Emirates, had flown across the world at the invitation of her favorite team. She had lunched with the team’s executives at the UAE embassy, visited with the team’s owner at her first NHL game, met the team’s stars in their Verizon Center dressing room, and broken into tears at the intensity of it all. Now she sat on the bench at the team’s practice rink Wednesday afternoon, surrounded by a dozen television cameras and a gaggle of still photographers — the sort of crowd that usually emerges only during the playoffs. Her younger brother sat next to her, and Al Ali kept leaning over, asking him to remind her to breathe.
Practice broke, she was beckoned onto the ice, and players tapped their sticks to welcome the newcomer. Then, between whistling shots at the net and fiddling with an unfamiliar stick, she figured out how to calm down.
“Just talking about hockey — something we all share, and something we all love,” she said.
So she chatted with Russian Alex Ovechkin, her favorite player, about trying to find ice time in Abu Dhabi. (“She was amazing,” Ovechkin said.) She talked about blade curvature with American T.J. Oshie, whose stick she borrowed. (“To see the smile on her face out there, obviously she was doing what she loves,” Oshie said.) She received a playful mid-ice nudge from Canadian Justin Williams, and worked on scooping the puck off the ground with Canadian Tom Wilson. And when she later took a pass from Ovechkin and sent a one-timer into the net, the international roster whooped, Evgeny Kuznetsov pumping his arm in celebration.
CBS Evening News and PBS and CNN and Reuters were at this Capitals practice because of the young woman in the hijab, a striking image at this particular moment. On the ice, though, they weren’t talking about international relations.
“For me, it’s just a hockey player seeing another hockey player go out there and have some fun,” Oshie said. “I don’t really need to or want to get into the political stuff. My first impression was just that it’s cool that someone from so far away can still share the love of the game.”
Hockey ‘makes me alive’
This started thousands of miles away with “The Mighty Ducks” — the movie, not the team. Al Ali speaks flawless English, which she attributed to a movie obsession, and as a kid, she fixated on hockey movies: “Slap Shot,” “Miracle,” and the goofy 1992 Emilio Estevez vehicle about an unlikely team of skaters.
“Hockey was something different, more interesting than soccer,” she said.
She’d been skating since she was 7, but the game remained mostly Hollywood in her mind.
Then, in 2008, she saw a brochure at the mall, advertising an upcoming men’s tournament. She showed up at the tournament with her camera, and organizers asked her to take photos of their team. That team became a club known as the Abu Dhabi Storms, and Al Ali became its photographer. In 2010 the club established a fledgling women’s team — featuring both teenagers and women in their 30s — and the players repeatedly asked their photographer to join them on the ice.
“You guys can’t even skate; why would I want to join the team?” she asked them, but the requests wouldn’t stop. Finally she told them to get her equipment, and she started practicing with grade-schoolers half her size, who looked at her in puzzlement. She’d been playing competitive sports since she was 3; soccer and basketball, diving and golf. (“I have this code in my head: If I start something, I have to be good at it,” she said.) Hockey felt different.
“I just fell in love with the game,” she said. “It almost just makes me alive, makes me have energy, excited. I don’t know — I feel like I’m home. That’s my place. This is where I should be. So from that time, I cannot stay away from the rink.”
Abu Dhabi, she said, has one hockey rink, with one sheet of ice, which is usually occupied by men’s teams. The closest women’s competition is in Dubai, about an hour away, and is not particularly elite. (“A bunch of old ladies,” Al Ali quipped.) Still, she did everything she could to stay around the game. She coached children. She skated with men, who worried about injuring her. She worked with equipment managers. She began officiating, both international girls’ tournaments and the local league, made up mostly of expats. She tried to break up an on-ice fight and got punched in the head, which led some of the men’s players to suggest maybe this wasn’t the place for a toothpick-thin young woman.
“I’m not getting out,” she told them. “This is hockey.”
She also became an NHL devotee, streaming games as soon as she arrived at work in the morning, which meant she needed a team. She knew of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin — the NHL’s two most famous stars — and watched YouTube videos of both men to help her choose. “Both are great players, but one was a scorer,” she said. “I wanted to be a scorer.” Ovechkin’s Capitals became her favorite team.
She watched more videos, too, of stickhandling tricks performed by Crosby and Pavel Datsyuk and random YouTubers. “Okay, I should try this,” she thought. Years of practice later, there she was at her home rink, wearing a hijab and sandals, spinning around a puck that seemed glued to her stick. Retired Caps star Peter Bondra happened to be in the rink that day, working a hockey clinic in conjunction with his former team, and someone told him to look at Al Ali.
“I stopped whatever we had been doing,” Bondra recalled. “The way she handled the puck, it was amazing. … I said, ‘Hold on, this is something. I have to start talking with the lady.’ ”
He approached and asked if he could take a video of her tricks, something to post on his Twitter account. She said sure. “It’s safe to say she has better hands than me!” Bondra wrote. As the video went viral and U.S. hockey reporters took notice, the two struck up a friendship, a 40-something Slovak star and a 20-something Emirati woman.
“She just was a natural,” Bondra said. “You feel like you’re talking to a hockey guy, a hockey player. We can relate easy in that conversation, in that hockey talk.”
When Bondra learned that her favorite team was the Capitals and that she had never been to an NHL game, he promised to take her to Verizon Center if she ever visited D.C. A few days later, she texted to ask if the offer stood. “Of course, that always will stand,” he told her. By that time, the team was working to bring her to Washington.
‘I’m freaking out’
Al Ali and her younger brother Mohammed arrived in Washington this week. They went to Monday’s Wizards-Cavaliers game. They had lunch at the UAE embassy Tuesday, where Al Ali presented Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba with a signed jersey from her team, filled with neat autographs and smiley faces. The siblings listened to the ambassador — a Georgetown graduate who is close with several Caps executives — talk about how much he loves her story, how he wants to bring Al Ali’s team to the States for an exhibition tour.
“I don’t think we’re good enough,” she told him.
“It’s not about being good enough,” he said, “it’s about …”
“The experience,” she agreed.
“I’m really serious,” he said, instructing an aide to start working up a plan. “It would be good for some of our diplomacy efforts … especially at a moment like this politically.”
Indeed, Al Ali’s visit came as the country debates President Trump’s immigration order temporarily barring refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. (The UAE, a U.S. ally, was not one of the seven countries.) Al Ali didn’t want to talk about politics, but her brother said he was nervous coming to Washington in this climate, and also hopeful that their visit could be significant. (“I believe it might give people a different look at how it is in the Middle East or the UAE,” he said. “We’re the same as you guys.”)
And yet as Al Ali clutched her hands together inside the embassy and thought about sharing the ice with her favorite players, she seemed less like a diplomat than a star-struck fan from Rockville or Reston.
“I’m freaking out,” she confessed. “I’ve been trying to come to D.C. since I started hockey … and then suddenly this thing happens. Unbelievable. A dream is coming true.”
Tuesday night she met Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in the team’s dressing room. Wednesday morning, team officials presented her with a personalized jersey and told her to grab a player’s stick and take it onto the ice. She passed the puck back and forth with Ovechkin, struggled to recreate her tricks with Oshie’s curved stick, and filled in for an assistant coach, feeding pucks for the Caps to pummel. Then she talked to the type of media scrum a bottom-pair defenseman might never encounter in his career.
She told them how she picked up the game, how she fell for Ovechkin and how she met Bondra. She told them about the challenges of playing hockey in the Middle East, and about what lessons she hopes to bring back to the kids she coaches. She talked about breaking barriers and inspiring strangers, and how this was “the best thing that happened in my life.”
Then she headed off for more interviews and a trip to the Maryland suburbs to practice with a local women’s team, while Coach Barry Trotz answered questions about his third-line winger and his team’s defense and upcoming schedule — and about their visitor from across the world.
“This generation of players now, I think, understand that there is diversity in the world and our game is for everybody,” Trotz said. “Just seeing her smile and the guys having fun and doing all that — I think that’s a good message for society right now.”