Hockey is not the national sport of the United Arab Emirates.
Despite that, members of one family from that country were taken by the sport — and they’ve thrown themselves into it since moving from Dubai to Regina this past June.
In January, Jamal Yousuf signed up his son Esmail and his daughter Musfirah for the Ehrlo Outdoor Hockey League, despite knowing next to nothing about hockey.
“In Dubai we heard about (ice hockey),” Jamal said. “We were doing ice skating there on the indoor (rinks). There’s the world’s biggest mall (in Dubai) so there they have an ice rink and my kids used to go twice a month, but they never had the hockey.
“My son was always saying, ‘I want to play ice hockey’ but I said, ‘We don’t have an opportunity here in Dubai.’”
They got that chance in Regina thanks to the Outdoor Hockey League.
The three-decade-old program takes advantage of the Queen City’s outdoor rinks in the winter and provides people from all different types of backgrounds a chance to play Canada’s game for free.
“Our players are really comprised of kids that wouldn’t really have the access to play otherwise,” explained Gloria Patrick, who is the league’s program manager. “Lots of our kids come whether they have never played before, had access before, or maybe there is a financial or equipment barrier.
“We practise at eight different rinks throughout the week and have 16 teams that we run. We have two teams that play each night at each location and they get an hour on the ice.”
All of the ice sessions the kids take part in are run by volunteers.
They teach the kids skating and puck-handling drills and eventually they’re able to play some games at the end. The goal is to teach the kids the basics and have fun.
Jamal Yousuf said Esmail gained interest in hockey while in Dubai after CNN showed hockey highlights. While he doesn’t know about any of the teams, he was fascinated with the game.
“(Playing hockey) just came to my brain I guess,” Esmail said.
“I wanted to learn something new and different because most sports are on the ground,” Musfirah added.
Jamal said enrolling his kids in hockey was never really something he thought of until they started persuading him to do it.
Esmail said there was one specific reason why he wanted to sign up for hockey.
“You don’t have to run, you just have to slide around and skate,” he said.
Jamal notes he was initially scared to sign up his kids because of how physical a sport it could be.
“(My kids) were saying they want to play and I was saying I was scared of them getting injured. But they told me they had all these protective gear,” he said.
“I was unfamiliar with (the equipment) because I have never watched hockey before. I told them to go ahead.”
“I was a bit scared, but they were very brave,” he added. “They had a few minor falls (at first), but the difference from the first time to now is evident. The first day they were trying to balance and now they can pretty much manoeuvre around with the puck. It’s good.”
Yousuf says his kids are getting on the ice twice a week, once with the league and another time just as a family.
He thinks it’s great his kids are getting outside and getting the exercise they need.
Both Esmail and Musfirah said they enjoy the coaching from the volunteers as well.
“They were kind and nice,” said Esmail.
“The coaches were really nice and really kind the way they spoke to us,” Musfirah added.
Both said they want to keep playing hockey as they continue to grow up in Regina.
On Wednesday, the league’s players were greeted by a couple of members of the WHL’s Regina Pats who decided to strap on their blades and go for a skate with them.
Sam Oremba was one of those Pats players who skated on the ice.
As a kid from Regina who never heard of the league, he said it was exciting to get out with all the younger players.
“It’s my first time, but it’s pretty darn neat that all these kids come to play on the outdoor rink. It’s a lot of fun and we look forward to doing it again,” he explained.
He noted he used to go to the rink all the time when he was younger.
“Back in elementary when I had days off, I’d go outside for three, four hours and play with my buddies,” he added.
He said it’s something he misses.
“I actually do (miss) skating on the outdoor rink because you develop different skills because you’re doing different things, that’s for sure,” Oremba said. “You get to be creative and have some fun.”
But he noted he still does go out to the outdoor rink. Because he lives right next to one, Oremba said he brought his skates and stick and decided to shoot around.
Currently, the Outdoor Hockey League has 300 players. Of those, 95 per cent were fitted for donated gear.