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.”