One February day, some multiple of four years from now, a women’s hockey team will board a flight out of Abu Dhabi, with their equipment bags, their hijabs and their matching red jackets with “UAE” in white block letters on the back, and will arrive some hours later in the host city for that year’s Winter Olympics. They won’t, in other words, find themselves shuttling around Washington instead as some sort of hockey ambassadors, spreading inspiration, absorbing even more, and all the while wondering when and where they can watch the Olympics on television.
Not that any member of the United Arab Emirates women’s national hockey team was complaining Thursday. They were too busy living out a dream: taking selfies with T.J. Oshie and Madison Bowey of the Washington Capitals, getting pointers from five-time NHL all-star Peter Bondra, doing countless interviews and pinching themselves to make sure it was all real.
“I wasn’t nervous at all when we were first coming here, because I didn’t know what it would be like,” said Mariam Al Ameri, a 26-year-old right winger from Abu Dhabi, sitting in the stands at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Ballston as the Capitals wrapped up practice Thursday. “But it’s different when you start living it. We get here, and there’s Alex Ovechkin on the ice. Like, right there. Life-sized — not on TV, not on my phone screen. He’s right there.
“I can’t put it into words. It’s just amazing.”
On that February day in the far future, when the UAE team skates in its first Olympics — a notion that perhaps isn’t any more far-fetched than the very existence today of a women’s ice hockey team in a Muslim nation on the Arabian Peninsula where average summer temperatures are 113 degrees — the events of this week may be remembered as a turning point for the program.
Through a confluence of chance meetings, corporate partnerships, NHL social-outreach initiatives and the sheer power of a great story to transcend borders and cultures, the 17 members of the UAE team traveled 7,000 miles this week to see what their sport looks like at its ultimate level, to tell the world what it looks like from their own humble vantage point — and perhaps to bridge the vast gap between the two. The team, which spent Thursday at the Capitals’ training headquarters, will participate in the ceremonial puck-drop at Capital One Arena before Friday night’s game and will continue on to appearances in Chicago and Ottawa next week.
“We’re hockey players somewhere in the middle of the desert,” said Al Ameri, who attended college in Canada. “And not only that — we’re women playing hockey. So it makes me so proud that women from my country are setting a goal of becoming hockey players and are not only achieving it but are getting something as great as this out of it. If you’d told me when I started that I’d be sitting here talking to you and watching the Capitals practice, and getting on the ice with them, I would’ve called you a liar.”
The UAE players don’t need to guess how impactful their trip to North America this month can be to the process of building their program into an international power — they already have ample evidence of the power of hockey diplomacy. This whole trip came together because of it.
A year ago, one of their teammates, Fatima Al Ali, turned a chance meeting with Bondra, who noted her supreme stickhandling skills in a video that soon went viral on Twitter, into a trip to D.C. to meet Ovechkin, skate with the Capitals and put a shining, smiling human face on the who-knew concept of women’s hockey in the Middle East. It wasn’t long before the Capitals, the NHL and Etihad Airways glimpsed the larger marketing and social-outreach possibilities.
In the 12 months since, both Al Ali’s life and the scope and ambition of the UAE women’s national team have been transformed. Al Ali became an ambassador for her team, her country and her sport, traveling to Canada, Slovakia, Germany, Slovenia and Australia on hockey-focused youth missions, while her voice mail and social media accounts exploded with queries from women who suddenly wanted nothing more in the world than to be hockey players.
“We’ve had another 10 to 15 players join the national team program,” Al Ali said. “I didn’t expect it would have that big an effect.”
The women of the UAE team always had dealt with a massive perception problem back home. Though the nation’s culture is more open and permissive than those of many of its neighbors, it wasn’t a culture that understood, or even cared to understand, why women would want to play hockey.
“It wouldn’t be like, ‘No, you can’t do this,’ ” Al Ameri said. “It’s just that they don’t understand it. They ask questions like, ‘Why do you do this? Do you get hurt?’ They see hockey players, and the first thing they think is we must be missing teeth. It’s like, ‘No, in women’s hockey, they wear [faceguard] cages. We all have our teeth.’ ”
Since Al Ali’s trip to Washington a year ago, the UAE women are facing fewer of those questions, even from their own friends and family.
“I started getting calls from people at work, my family — people who knew I played hockey,” Al Ameri said. “It changed things. People were like, ‘So that’s what you do?’ They all knew I played hockey, but they never really imagined what it means to you. They thought it’s just something I took up, just a hobby.”
On Thursday, after a trip to Capitol Hill, where they met with Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Congressional Hockey Caucus, the UAE women, toting equipment bags that appeared to weigh as much as the players themselves, arrived at Kettler just after 10:30 a.m., with the Capitals already on the ice for their morning practice. Out came the smartphones and the selfie sticks, and up went the Twitter and Instagram posts.
After the Caps wrapped up, the UAE women changed into their uniforms and went through a practice of their own — with Al Ali, No. 7, leading them onto the ice and getting the first fist-bump from Oshie. Bondra, the Capitals’ director of alumni affairs and business development, and current players Bowey and Chandler Stephenson skated alongside, weaving in and out, observing and offering instruction. The experience was a revelation on all sides.
“I wasn’t really aware that some NHL players are very young,” said 22-year-old left wing Dana Al Sabbagh, referring to Bowey, 22, and Stephenson, 23. “And to be that young and have that level of skill, it’s inspiring. Like, I could reach there some day. Seeing them on the ice made me more motivated.”
“For me, the skating was the biggest thing I noticed,” Bowey said. “That’s the hardest thing to get down in this game. All these girls can skate, which is very special. You can see the work ethic and the passion. It put a smile on all our faces.”
At some point during their travels these next 10 days, the UAE women hope to pile into one of their hotel rooms and catch some of the women’s hockey tournament in the PyeongChang Olympics. The UAE team is a long way from qualifying at a world championship level, playing mostly in a second-division Asian Cup league with a major tournament next month in Malaysia. But if they come as far in the next 12 months as they did in the previous 12, and as far in the next five years as in the previous five, they might all live to see it happen.
“I’m 26,” Al Ameri said. “There’s only so much I can achieve at this point in my life. We’re pioneering this, but my hope out of this trip isn’t winning medals or anything but laying the groundwork for our next generation — for them to be able to go and win the Olympics and carry the flag of our country everywhere.”
Read more from Washington Post sports: