Month: June 2023

The rise of ice hockey

By Adnan Sipra – GDN online

With the sporting limelight in the kingdom hogged by football, basketball, volleyball and handball – the four sports that dominate the headlines on a regular basis – a major achievement by Bahrain’s national ice hockey team slipped quietly under the news radar.

Competing in the Arab Club Ice Hockey Championship – which was held recently in Kuwait, featuring teams from eight countries across the region – Bahrain reached the semi-finals of the competition before losing to eventual champions, Lebanon, in a hard-fought contest.

Earlier, placed in a tough preliminary group with regional heavyweights Algeria and Tunisia and hosts Kuwait, the Bahraini team surprised everyone when they defeated the mighty Algerians to notch up their first ever win in an international clash at this level.

A few days later, after narrowly losing to the Kuwaitis, Bahrain upset the highly-fancied Tunisians to snap up another international win and finished second in their group behind the hosts.

“The win against Algeria was incredible because it was our first ever win in an international tournament,” Bahrain head coach Petr Dubsky told the GDN in an exclusive interview. “It was an amazing feeling to register that victory. I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

“For it to be followed by another win against another tough team like Tunisia was an even more spectacular feeling. No one expected us to do well so I can tell you that quite a few people there were quite shocked at what we were able to accomplish.”

Dubsky, 44, who started playing ice hockey at the age of five in his native Czech Republic, played the sport regularly until he was 18. Now the general manager at the Diplomat Radisson Hotel, the Bahraini head coach – who served an earlier stint in the kingdom with the same chain from 2014-17 before being transferred first to Saudi and then to Oman – returned to the island in January last year.

“While I was in Oman, I took the opportunity to apply for a coaching licence because I wanted to coach their national team,” Dubsky said. “Then, when I returned to Bahrain in 2022, I thought I would put my passion for the sport and my licence to good use by coaching the kingdom’s national team.”

In his capacity as head coach, Dubsky has been working closely with Abdulla Al Qassimi, the chairman of the Bahrain Ice Hockey Club (BIHC), the only officially recognised club in the kingdom.

It is Al Qassimi, 40, who played the sport competitively until a serious leg injury forced him to stop, who has worked tirelessly to try and put Bahrain on the regional and international ice hockey map.

Not bothered by the lack of a full-size ice rink of their own – the BIHC rents one at a popular recreational facility in Manama for every two-hour training session – Al Qassimi juggles his job at the General Sports Authority (GSA) while overseeing the administration of the club.

“The rink we use is roughly half the size of a proper international one,” he explained. “So that makes our team’s exploits in Kuwait even more remarkable.

“And I agree with Petr – seeing our team win against Algeria to finally register our first success generated a feeling I can’t even begin to put into words! And, then, watching them bounce back from a defeat against Kuwait to hand Tunisia a comprehensive drubbing was even more incredible.”

Bahrain captain Sameh Hegazi, who won the player-of-the-match award against Tunisia was similarly delighted as he described what it was like to lead his team to their first ever international victories.

“We were in a very difficult group,” Hegazi, 36, who works for the Bahrain Navy, told the GDN. “The other group had Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt and Oman with only the Lebanese being a truly formidable team.

“But here we were, pitted against Algeria and Tunisia. Almost all of the players in those two teams live in France or Canada and play in pro leagues. Here, we don’t even have a full-sized rink and, of course, we don’t have any leagues.

“So, in our very first game against Algeria, we had to make the adjustment from playing on a small rink at home to playing on a proper rink against top-class international opposition. And we won 6-5, after having first trailed 3-5.”

The defeat against Kuwait was treated by the Bahrain team as a learning experience, Hegazi added.

“We gave them tough competition,” he continued. “We eventually lost, 6-4, but it was a good game with the hosts receiving a lot of support from their home crowd.”

But, in their final group game against Tunisia, Hegazi said, the Bahrain team roared right back.

“We pushed hard in the first period and kept them in check,” he explained. “And then, we eventually won 7-2.”

In the semi-final against Lebanon, however, the team’s preparations were undone by injuries to two key players and the fact that the Lebanese players all had pro league experience.

“They are a very strong team,” Hegazi said. “Nearly all of the players in that semi-final were 19-22-years-old. All of them live in Canada where they play in pro leagues and their lives are all about ice hockey. We lost 8-1 to them, but there was no shame in that.

“Afterwards, we lost our third-place play-off to Oman – who had lost to Kuwait in the other semi-final – but, again, while we would have liked to have won that, we were still very happy with what we were able to achieve.”

Watching all the action from the bench was Bahrain women’s captain Malak Janahi, who is part of the senior BIHC leadership group formed by Dubsky. The women’s team did not take part in the tournament but Janahi did lead her team to an invitational tournament in Kazan, Russia, last January.

“There were seven teams, including us, in that tournament,” the 24-year-old software engineering student, who was appointed captain in late 2021, told the GDN. “Considering that most of the girls in the team started playing the sport very recently, it was a great experience.

“We knew that the tournament was intended to be part of our learning curve. And, it helped us immensely. You see, in Russia, girls start playing ice hockey from a very young age so they’re very, very good by the time they become adults.

“So we told ourselves that we would try and learn as much as we could from playing against them, and other good players from other countries. As a result, our girls came back feeling much more confident about their abilities after going up against such good opposition.”

Behind the scenes, Al Qassimi has been liaising with officials from ice hockey federations in different countries in the region and beyond and is working hard to register Bahrain with the International Ice Hockey Federation.

“In partnership with officials from other countries, we have also created an Arab Ice Hockey Federation as well as an Islamic Ice Hockey Federation,” he said. “This will help give the game a boost in Bahrain as well.”

But before that can happen, head coach Dubsky said, prospects of the sport prospering in the kingdom were difficult without proper facilities.

“But we’re still grateful for the small ice rink,” he added. “It’s just that you can’t really practice strategy by playing on a small rink, that is half the size of an international standard one.

“If you go from practicing on a small rink to playing an international tournament on a proper rink, there are problems with passing, problems of scale, the players have to adjust to the speed of the puck on a big rink very quickly.

“That, again, is why the team’s achievement in Kuwait is so momentous. Meanwhile, Abdulla is doing good work. One of his plans is to send players to other countries to play, coach, referee and manage. It will make them even more well-rounded.”

And Dubsky, himself, who is loving every bit of the time he gets to spend on the sport he is so passionate about, has also taken some initiatives of his own.

“I’ve created four teams – two consisting of Bahrainis, two of expats – who played each other in a sort of league recently,” he explained. “The Bahraini guys did really well, which was extremely encouraging.

“And, also, I want to do my bit for local communities here. I feel that, as an expat, I should give something back to the wonderful country I live in. And my employers have been extremely supportive of both my involvement in the kingdom’s ice hockey scene as well as my initiatives for community development.”

Sweetest feeling’: Iran’s female ice hockey team defies the odds

Azam Sanaei is the captain and assistant coach of Iran women’s ice hockey team

By John Dureden – Aljazeera

“Nobody was expecting such a great outcome, so everyone was quite shocked and surprised,” Azam Sanaei told Al Jazeera, in what can only be described as an understatement.

The 34-year-old is the captain and assistant coach of Iran women’s ice hockey team that came so close to becoming champions of Asia and Oceania last month.

The team did not even exist three years ago, but now looks like it could be a force to be reckoned with.

In May, Iran travelled to Bangkok to play in the IIHF Women’s Asia and Oceania Championship for the first time.

Iran started the eight-nation tournament with a 17-1 demolition of India, followed by even more emphatic wins over Kuwait (20-0) and Kyrgyzstan (26-0). They beat the United Arab Emirates 14-0 in the quarters and Singapore 3-0 in the semis.

Iran’s run was ended by the host nation in the final. The score was 1-1 for much of the game before Thailand – roared on by a big and partisan crowd – pulled away in the closing stages to win 3-1 and take the gold medal.

Still, silver was still a fine reward for the women from Iran.

“It was our first official Asian ice hockey championship experience,” Sanaei said. “All our competitors had much more experience in ice hockey than us, so even getting to the tournament was a huge step. It was the sweetest feeling and proudest moment to get to the final and take second place.”

Sanaei’s teammate Fatemeh Esmaeili, the competition’s leading scorer with 17 goals, told Iranian television that the home crowd and Thailand’s experience had made the difference.

“We were really shocked at the beginning of the final match because we had never played in such an atmosphere.”

‘An incredible achievement’

For Sanaei, the journey to playing in the final began when she started in-line skating as a young girl, a popular activity in Iran. At the age of 14, she started playing in-line hockey, a sport not so common in her homeland.

“Hockey and ice hockey are not popular in Iran at all, they are [among] many sports that not a lot of people know about.” She felt comfortable with a stick in her hand and was also interested in ice hockey, but until recently there was no international standard ice rink in Tehran.

That changed in 2019 with the opening of the Iran Mall in the capital and the beginnings of a team that transitioned from in-line hockey to the colder kind. “From then on, our ice hockey practices started,” she said.

The team, she said, practiced day and night in a bid to close the gap with more established ice hockey nations.

The onset of the COVID pandemic meant the women had to wait for their first opportunity to play other countries. In January, they finally played their first international games in Russia where they reached the final of a five-team Islamic Countries tournament.

Then came the trip to Thailand, which the women had to finance themselves.

“Around six months ago our federation became part of the Skiing federation which had no budget for ice skating so we had to pay for everything including tickets and visa fees ourselves,” said Sanaei.

Given all the obstacles, finishing second in a major international tournament turned heads inside and outside Iran.

“It is an incredible achievement for the Iranian team to perform so impressively, indeed one might even say that such success is unprecedented,” Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in France, told Al Jazeera.

The team also reached another milestone during the tournament when their matches were screened back home – the first time Iranian women’s sports were broadcast live on Iranian national television.

In a country where women are not allowed into stadiums to watch men’s football, this was seen as significant.

“It was such a huge step to have our games shown live on television,” said Sanaei. “It really means a lot. We hope that this continues and will have a positive effect on this sport.”

Chadwick says more state support is required for the sport to grow.

“This must be seen as just the start and not the end of the team’s journey. Indeed it demands that sports officials in Iran must take women’s ice hockey, and for that matter women’s sport, much more seriously,” he said.

“There is an opportunity for the Iranian government to utilise ice hockey success as the prompt for promoting female sport. It should be encouraging engagement amongst relevant groups, and must not see it as a sinister threat to Iran’s male hegemony.”

The signs are promising as the players were reimbursed – and given bonuses – for their expenses in playing in Thailand by the Ministry of Sport. They received messages of congratulations from sports minister Hamid Sajjadi as well as spokespeople for the Iranian government and the foreign ministry.

It all means that Sanaei is excited about what comes next.

“We are so looking forward to the future as we believe that next time we can make it to the top. With all the training that we will have, we can get there even in one year. Whatever happens, we won’t lose hope as we have faith that we will get to the best place.”

And there is a bigger prize, helping to inspire other young girls in Iran to pick up hockey sticks or take up any sport.

“Our achievement can help all of Iran’s women to know that there is nothing that can stop them and, even with all the barriers in front of them, if they try, they will make it to wherever they want.”

Will Lithuania ever stand up to Latvia on the ice hockey rink?

Source: Baltic News Network

When it comes to ice hockey, this May has been starkly different for Lithuania and Latvia. Having lost to South Korea, the former has dropped into a lower league, IB, and the latter has risen to the dizzying dazzle of stardom, winning bronze in the 2023 IIHF ice hockey world championship that was held in Riga and Tampere.

Note –with a win against the mighty United States.

“The entire country was and still is in a state of euphoria. Over 30,000 gathered in the center of Riga to greet the players upon their return and Monday was declared a legal holiday as well. Moments like this when it seems everyone has finally found one thing they can agree on are invaluable – for national morale and positive thinking,” Ilze, an American living in Latvia, told BNN.

With the braliukai (that’s how many Lithuanians call their closest neighbours, Latvians, amicably) leaping in joy, many Lithuanian ice hockey pundits and ordinary Lithuanians are scratching heads anew – can the country’s ice hockey be any better? And what needs to be done to ascend the IIHF ladder?

Remigijus Valickas, executive director of Lithuania’s National Ice Hockey League (LNIHL), says “all is about traditions.”


hence the respective attention to young ice hockey players, the financing of ice hockey schools, and the sport’s infrastructure. Until recently, Lithuania has had only three ice hockey arenas – in Elektrėnai, Kaunas, and Rokiškis. To draw a parallel with basketball, where our national basketball team would be if had only three basketball courts?” R. Valickas told BNN.

He says that with more ice arenas being opened, more children enroll the ice hockey schools.

“And the number of our children playing ice hockey has grown exponentially – from 170 in 2013, when I came to the Ice Hockey Federation, to a little bit over 1 100 now. So, the investments in children will yield results – sooner or later,” the LNIHL executive director emphasised.

Yet, he agrees, getting back to the IIHF’s higher tier, IA, to which the Lithuanian ice hockey squad belonged before dropping into IB after an unsuccessful tournament in May, will not be easy.

“The top division has 20 teams. So considering everything and being the 23rd on the IIHF ranking our situation is not tragic. By the way,


Understandably, there were quite a few teams in the championship and ice hockey has changed unrecognizably since then,” R. Valickas noted.

He says Lithuania has never beaten Latvia on an ice hockey rink yet.

“We lost even against their teams with the second-tier players on the rink. But there is always a first time – for our win against it, too,” he said.

Speaking to BNN, Gintaras Nenartavičius, a sports journalist at, insisted that, compared to the situation two or three years ago, Lithuania is seeing a slump in the performance on the rink.

“A couple of years ago, we saw a kind of rise in the sport, but things are edging downward now. Just a few years ago, we could fight on par against Poland, but they crushed us 7-0 in the IIHF’s IA tournament in May, a big embarrassment. Even the Poles were surprised how weak our team was,” he said.

According to the sports journalist, there is a “bunch of reasons” for Lithuania’s unimpressive performance on the rink.

“Of course, No. 1 is traditions.


with the games’ centers still being far from the major cities: in Elektrėnai (a town of about 11,000 inhabitants in Vilnius County, some 45 kilometers away from Vilnius – L. J.). And the other in Rokiškis, a far-flung provincial town,” G. Nenartavičius said, adding: “Recently, the Latvians have significantly ramped up their ice hockey infrastructure and the bulk of it is in Riga.”

According to the journalist, unless the local ice hockey coaches can pick talents from a big line-up of children, a breakthrough cannot happen in the sport.

“Now, they train who they have – quite a few children on the rink. Far from the luxury of basketball coaches who have dozens and dozens lining up for the selection,” G. Nenartavičius said.

In his words, as a sport, ice hockey is expensive – for children and their parents.

“The gear costs hundreds and thousands. It is not like basketball where you can put a T-shirt on and any sneakers and run on the court. Many parents just cannot afford having their child in an ice hockey school,” the journalist suggested.

“I spoke to some Ukrainian children and their parents who came to Vilnius from Kharkiv (Ukraine’s second-largest city – L.J.). Even though, all together, Ukraine’s ice hockey is weak, but, to believe them, they had great conditions for training there. And here the conditions they have do not even come close to those in Kharkiv,” he added.

For Aurimas Jokimčius, head of „Šaulys“ ice hockey school in Šiauliai, Lithuania’s fourth-largest city, the underlying issues of national ice hockey are embedded in the sport’s financing.

“Unlike in Latvia, where both Government, the local municipalities, and numerous big-name companies support the sport financially, here in Lithuania, we are getting just crumbs.


We tend to support sports, with the exception of basketball, only when their best athletes win internationally,” A. Jokimčius told BNN.

Asked how his private ice hockey school has been doing over 10 years in operation, he was honestly blunt: “We have been skidding most of the time and we are still skidding, yet persevering and chugging forward.”

“For many parents, ice hockey is too expensive. Imagine the prices of the outfit at nearly 500 euros and the arena lease costs us roughly 2000 euros per month. And then travelling to tournaments and so on,” he said,

Yet the school founder and coach says that, when it comes to the children’s motivation, he has no problem with it.

“When you play ice hockey in Lithuania, getting into the national squad is much easier than, say, for all the aspiring young basketballers, where the competition is huge,” A. Jokimčius said, adding: “If you work hard and stay goal-oriented, success will come. For example, we have young Lithuanians playing for top-tier Swiss and Swedish ice hockey clubs.”

However, he is hesitant if Lithuania can make it into the top IIHF division in the next 10 years.

“Many cards have to fall on the table favourably. Having many more ice hockey arenas, allotting bigger financing for the sport is a must. Our Baltic children, and Lithuanian children too, are gifted as players of physical sports, so I am optimistic,” A. Jokimčius said.

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