By Greg Wyshynski – ESPN.com
The hieroglyphics can be found adorning the tombs at Egypt’s ancient Beni Hassan burial site. They depict two men, each holding a long palm-tree branch, with slightly curved ends. They’re pointing them at the ground, crossing one over the other.
Ignore the desert garb, and it almost looks like they’re taking a hockey faceoff. There’s an ancestral reason for this: Ancient Egyptians created a game in which sticks were used to smack around a semicircle created from papyrus fibers wrapped in leather.
In essence, Sameh Ramadan isn’t trying to bring hockey to the Egyptian pyramids. He’s trying to bring it back.
Ramadan is the president of Egypt Ice Hockey as well as a captain for its national club team, which will compete in the first Arab Club Cup Championship beginning April 3 in Abu Dhabi. It’s a tournament that seeks to spotlight the hockey programs of Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco, the only nation among the group currently recognized by the International Ice Hockey Federation.
“This tournament is a coming-out party for all these teams on an international stage,” Ramadan said.
It’s another step forward for the nascent hockey program in Egypt, which is seeking an endorsement from the nation’s governing sports bodies as its official national hockey team, which is necessary for application to the IIHF. To be granted membership, Ramadan has to prove the program’s viability, relevance and capacity for growth.
“Basically, all I need now is a letter from my sports minister that says, ‘Egypt Ice Hockey represents the ice hockey interests of Egypt.’ No money involved. Just saying the IIHF can talk to us. And then we can put in an application,” Ramadan said.
In other words, Hockey Egypt has to get these gatekeepers’ attention. That is why it is playing a game at the pyramids.
“We’re trying to get a full-sized rink. As of now, it’s going to be synthetic, for budget reasons, but we’re trying to get the sponsorships to do a full ice rink. We’re trying to target December or January in the event we can do an ice rink because it’s cold enough,” said Ramadan, who said several sign-offs from the government are required before the game can happen.
Other events have been held at the pyramids — everything from a David Guetta rave to an international squash tournament. But never hockey. Well, at least not since B.C.
“Hockey being played in front of the pyramids … that would be an iconic image. That would sweep the globe,” said Rob Ruszala of The Hockey Foundation.
Ruszala would know about playing hockey in iconic places. The last game he organized made the Guinness Book of World Records.
The Hockey Foundation is a New York-based nonprofit organization that seeks to support and grow the sport in emerging communities. In places such as, for example, the Himalayan region of Ladakh, India, where The Hockey Foundation helped facilitate a world record for the highest-altitude hockey game, at 14,340 feet above sea level.
“Our pilot program was in the Indian Himalayas,” Ruszala said. “The motivation behind this is that India does not have a regulation-sized rink in its entire country. So we were able to procure the boards, ship them over and donate them to the program. So we staged the Himalayan game to bring more interest to their developing program, but the long-lasting effect was to have a regulation-sized rink in the country.”
When it comes to a game at the pyramids, it’s not simply for the stunning visuals and novelty of the stunt. “We’re not doing it for the photo op. We’re doing it for the legacy impact,” he said.
The legacy of hockey in Egypt is one of humble beginnings.
Ramadan’s parents lived in a suburb of Cairo, and the family’s apartment was across the street from one of the three ice rinks in Egypt. The rinks are what one might expect them to be: each located within a mall in Cairo, each about 25 percent the size of an NHL rink (or about 300 meters long), with no Zambonis or even skate sharpeners.
“Two of our players had never had their skates sharpened,” Ramadan said of his national club team. “But you’d be shocked: Because they played on such crappy ice all the time, they were able to get up to speed quickly. [Seeing them on groomed, regulation ice] was like watching ducks fly for the first time.”
The rink near his parents’ home opened in 1997. Ramadan remembers asking his cousin to bring some hockey equipment to his apartment so they could go across the street and play.
His experience shows hockey’s place in Egyptian culture just 20 years ago. “We tried getting on the ice [with equipment], and the security guard stopped us,” Ramadan said. “He thought we were carrying weapons. No one had any idea what hockey was.”
Fast-forward to 2016. Ramadan is living in New Jersey and a father of two daughters. His friend Yasser Ahmed, the Egyptian national team’s goalie and director of hockey operations, discovered that there was an actual hockey team playing at the old rink in Cairo: The Anubis Club, a group of local players and a program completely anonymous to the local populace.
“Back in 2004, we went to play at a rink, and it just so happened that some Egyptians joined us. And we ended up with a nice little group,” Mike Letanzey, a Canadian ex-pat, told CGTN in 2017.
Ramadan, who has an MBA in marketing, reached out to the team. To get noticed, he reasoned, they needed to rebrand. The team became Egypt Ice Hockey, sporting one of the most memorable logos in the world: the image of a pharaoh wearing a “Friday The 13th”-style goalie mask.
By July 2016, Egypt was playing in its first international ice hockey tournament: the African Ice Hockey Cup for club teams, held in Morocco. (The tournament had the support of the Czech Republic ice hockey federation, which even donated a bus with Jaromir Jagr’s image on its side.) The rink’s size allowed for only 3-on-3 hockey — the only regulation-sized rink on the continent is located in South Africa — and the Egyptians were, well, very much the newbies there. “We had no business being there with that specific team,” Ramadan said.
But the trip changed the course of Egyptian ice hockey — thanks, in part, to Reddit.
A man from the American embassy showed up at the Moroccan club tournament, asking to buy a Team Egypt jersey. Ramadan was shocked by this happenstance and asked how the man knew about the team. It turns out the Egyptian national team had gone viral on the Reddit hockey board, thanks to its unique branding. It was at that moment, Ramadan says, that everything clicked: a collection of ex-pats and club players could be Egypt’s national team, and together they could push for IIHF recognition.
That tournament is also where they hooked up with The Hockey Foundation.
Ruszala sat down with Ramadan and Ahmed about 18 months ago to begin formulating a plan for how to support and grow hockey in Egypt. It was clear, right away, that viable gear was the most pressing issue — including, for example, giving the goaltenders something more than shin guards.
“They only had one set of goalie pads, and every game they’d only have one goalie suit up. Mite or adult, it didn’t matter because it was one set of pads. I was floored by that,” Ruszala said.
Within a month, Hockey Foundation sent six sets of pads. Then came at least 100 other pieces of equipment, used gear the Foundation had collected in the U.S. and Canada. Sending it to Egypt proved costly, especially with local tariffs. “People don’t realize it costs up to $400 to finally get it into the hands of wherever its headed,” Ruszala said. “We’re hoping the sport revs up big enough that we can start sending over bulk shipments.”
Getting it revved up depends largely on getting Egypt to sign off on hockey officially and then investing in it. Ramadan, ever the marketing guy, decided that his best shot at this wasn’t to narrowly pitch hockey to the Youth Sports Minister and the national government. At the World Youth Forum last November, he made his pitch for a full winter sports federation that would include hockey.
“I don’t want to just grow ice hockey in Egypt. I want to grow a winter sports federation,” Ramadan said. “I told them to build me a rink, and I would have speedskating and curling and figuring skating and ice hockey all under one roof.”
He doesn’t want all of this opportunity just for men and boys, either. Ramadan has a 10-year-old daughter who plays goalie and an 8-year-old daughter who’s a forward. Kuwait and UAE have women’s teams, and he feels it’s essential that Egypt get women involved in winter sports as well.
“It’s Egypt. It’s a Muslim country. We want to promote women participating,” he said, pointing to the recent visit by members of the UAE women’s team to the Washington Capitals, with culminated with forward Fatima Al Ali dropping the ceremonial puck at a game while wearing a Capitals jersey and a hijab.
Ruszala said that participation of women in hockey is one of the harbingers The Hockey Foundation looks for in measuring the growth of an emerging hockey market. “It’s not just for boys. It’s all-inclusive,” he said.
They want to see more participants, not only on teams but also at clinics. “If we’re investing time and equipment and the numbers are stagnant, maybe that region isn’t ready for the sport yet,” Ruszala said.
But the last requirement is, at this point, the trickiest one for Egyptian hockey: formal recognition.
“In Egypt’s case, they’re like an NCAA club right now,” Ruszala said. “They need to be formally recognized by the ministry of sport as the chief representatives of hockey in Egypt.”
Which brings us back to the pyramids.
Erica Jong once referred to jealousy as “all the fun you think they had.” No matter what the level of play in a game at the pyramids might look like, the fact is that one will have been played there. Ruszala has already seen the effect a game in one country can have on another.
“The Pakistanis reached out to us after the India game,” he said.
The pyramids game isn’t just about the growth of hockey in Egypt, though Ramadan sees it as an essential step forward down that path. It’s about making a statement in Africa and the Middle East about the viability of the game, the continuing effort to alert the region to hockey’s presence and how it fits into their changing approach to sports.
“A lot of countries just focus on the sports where they have the best chance to medal and not the recreational aspects of the sport, which is where hockey in Egypt is,” Ruszala said. “Sport for recreation and sport for competition are relatively new concepts.”
As is hockey.
“It’s a new concept. It’s a novel concept. But it’s not an unfamiliar concept,” he said. “Skating they get, but now there’s an educational barrier. So this can’t be a one-off novelty.”
Ramadan can feel the momentum. The Arab Club Cup will bolster Egypt’s profile. So did his team’s gear going viral, both on Reddit and in photographs such as this one, which was featured on TSN and shows Adrian Mizzi, a man who goes by the nickname “The Travelling Goalie,” suited up in the desert wearing team gear: