By William Douglas –

Organizers aiming to join IIHF, build program that can compete in Winter Olympics

The NHL brought hockey to the desert by putting teams in Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Sameh Ramadan is on a crusade to bring the game to the sands of Egypt.

Ramadan is general manager and co-captain of Egypt Ice Hockey, a national club team appropriately named the Pharaohs. With the same kind of patience that it took to erect the pyramids stone by stone, he and the Pharaohs are building an Egyptian hockey program in hopes of joining the International Ice Hockey Federation and, some day, competing in the Winter Olympics.

Why Egypt?

Why not?

“I believe you never know where your next all-star is going to come from,” said Ramadan, an Egyptian who grew up and lives in New Jersey. “[Toronto Maple Leafs center] Auston Matthews is from the desert in Arizona, right? It’s not necessarily a hockey powerhouse.”

Hockey is growing gradually in the Middle East and Africa. South Africa has been an IIHF member since 1937, Israel joined the federation in 1991, the United Arab Emirates in 2001, Kuwait in 2009 and Morocco in 2010 as an associate member. Iran and Lebanon became associate IIHF members in September 2019.

Egypt, Kenya, and Tunisia are now knocking on the IIHF’s door.

“We don’t want to be left behind because we’ve been doing this for longer, but we’ve never organized it to the standpoint that we can move it to the next level,” Ramadan said. “That’s why we now have a good team in place, based in the U.S. and based in Cairo.”

For Egypt Ice Hockey’s IIHF dream to become reality, it must first gain the endorsement of the country’s athletic governing bodies.

“Ultimately to become an affiliate member of the IIHF all we need is a letter from either the Olympic committee or youth sport ministry basically saying that we’re the only group developing ice hockey in Egypt and we’re supported,” Ramadan said. “Can we be an aggressive Division III World Championship team? Absolutely, and that’s what our realistic goal is in the next 10 years.”

The Pharaohs have competed in tournaments in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years to help them gain exposure. In February, they played in the Arab Clubs Championship in Kuwait against teams from the host country, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.

“It’s just to show that we can play the game,” said Mohamed Aref, a tournament organizer who represents the UAE in the IIHF and is a member of the federation’s Asian Strategic Planning Group. “It doesn’t matter what’s the climate outside. I know people who say, ‘You are in the desert’ and ‘How can you play the game?’ It’s a different sport, it’s different from your culture, but you’re building the sport and you’re competing in that sport. For me, this is a big achievement.”

The Pharaohs finished fourth in the tournament with a 2-3 record, losing to Lebanon in the bronze medal game.

But the team’s efforts on and off the ice are beginning to pay off. Egypt’s Ministry of Youth and Sports asked Egypt Ice Hockey for a proposal “not just for ice hockey but for other winter sports: speed skating, curling, figure skating, alpine skiing and cross-country skiing,” Ramadan said. “Obviously ice hockey was the largest portion of that because we’ve had the most international exposure.”

Egypt Ice Hockey representatives were scheduled to meet with Youth and Sports Ministry officials, but Ramadan said the meeting has been postponed because of travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.

For now, Ramadan is doing what he can from New Jersey. He first got involved in Egyptian hockey in 2016 after Yasser Ahmed, a longtime friend who was living in Cairo, discovered through an online search that Egypt had a club team.

“He reached out to them, started skating with them,” Ramadan said. “They mentioned that they’re doing this tournament in Morocco. They said, ‘Do you want to join, and do you know any Egyptians who would want to play?’ I’ve been playing since I was a kid, so he reached out to me and two of his cousins. We all agreed to buy tickets and start training, and we hopped on a plane four weeks later.”

It’s not easy playing hockey in Egypt. Equipment is expensive and hard to come by for the nearly 120 men’s and women’s players in the country. The three rinks in Cairo where they play are only about 40 feet long — about 20 percent the size of an NHL rink.