Grand opening in Kuwait

Kuwait celebrated the opening of its new ice arena by hosting the 2020 Open Championship for Professional Arab Clubs. The new facility welcomed teams from Egypt, Lebanon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to contest a round-robin event with the host club, Kuwait Stars, as the new arena for the Kuwait Winter Games Club opened its doors last week.

Operated in Bayan, a residential district about 15 km from Kuwait City, the venue complements Kuwait’s 40-year-old rink and is intended to be capable of hosting IIHF events in the future as well as providing a permanent home for Kuwait’s national championship.

Last week’s inaugural competition saw a mixture of local players, members of the Arab communities in North America and ‘imports’ converge on Kuwait for the championship. After a busy week of action, the Kuwait Stars, the host team, came out on top. The Stars took gold after winning the decisive game against Al Ain Theebs from the United Arab Emirates in a ding-dong 6-4 victory. The Emirates team jumped to an early 2-0 lead before Kuwait’s player-coach Pavel Arnost got the home team on the scoreboard late in the first period. Arnost, a Czech who also coaches Kuwait’s national team, got his second of the game in the middle frame, but the Theebs added a third to hold a slender lead at the second intermission.

In the final session, though, the Kuwait Stars raised their game to hit four goals and turn the game around. The 6-4 scoreline secured gold for the host, with the Theebs having to settle for second place.

Bronze went to the Lebanon Cedars, a Canada-based team with players of Lebanese heritage, who defeated Egypt’s Pharaohs 5-4 in another tight battle for third place. At the foot of the table, the Bahrain Club ended the tournament with a 6-1 success against Jeddah to take fifth place and leave the winless Saudis bringing up the rear.

Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have been IIHF members for a while and compete in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program. They have recently been joined by Lebanon. Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have local ice hockey activities but have not become IIHF members yet.

The Stars roster has plenty of connections with the Kuwait national team. As well as Arnost, former Serbian international Bojan Zidarevic is part of the coaching set-up for club and country, as well as playing for the Stars. His connections helped to bring a team of Serbian officials over for the Arab Club Championship.

Kuwait isn’t the only country with international connections. The Theebs featured several players from the former USSR, while Egypt welcomed much-traveled American hockey lover Ryan Bahl, who is looking to stage an open-air charity hockey spectacle in the shadow of the Pyramids. Lebanon, meanwhile, has its team based in Quebec and working closely with the diaspora community in Canada to help promote the game back home where there is no ice rink yet.

As well as the men’s tournament, the event also helped to promote women’s hockey in the Arab world. Khaled al-Mutairi, deputy head of the Kuwait Winter Games Club told reporters that Kuwait already has a strong cohort of female players in various age groups and added that the club wants to ensure they have the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Thus, within the Arab Championship, there was a two-day coaching camp for women and girls, culminated in an exhibition game between the Lebanese women’s team and a combined roster representing the Gulf states of Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi, and UAE. Kuwait also hosted an event as part of the Global Girls’ Game last weekend.

The Lebanese team, comprised of North American-based players, won that game 5-1, but players from the Gulf were encouraged by the experience. Darina al-Bayed, head coach of the Jeddah club in Saudi Arabia praised the facilities available in Kuwait and said that her players had learned a lot from the experience. Bahrain’s Alaa Mehdi added: “We had a valuable opportunity to get acquainted with new training methods and formations.”

According to Dr. Hamoud Fuleiteh, Director General of Kuwait’s Public Authority for Sports, the event was a big success. In a press release, he praised the work of the Winter Games Club and talked of the strong competition and a remarkable turnout of fans due to the participation of the best Arab clubs in this sport.

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