Dubai, UAE: The Emirates Hockey League (EHL), the improbable-sounding UAE based ice hockey league, is preparing to take on the most formidable interstate league in Europe, the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) – and they know exactly where to look for guiding talent, both on and off the ice – Russia.
The UAE, where daytime temperatures can reach up to 40°c, seems an unlikely place to find a vibrant and growing ice hockey community, but despite expectations the desert kingdom is home to one of the fastest growing ice hockey leagues in the world.
Just last year the EHL appointed Russian born Vladimir Burdun as their new president. A former karate champion, established businessman and sports promoter, Burdun has made it clear that he intends for the UAE to have a world-class Emirati team by 2020. He is joined by fellow Russian Dmitry Butenko, who takes up the role of Managing Director.
Given that the KHL is their target, it is perhaps no surprise that the EHL management would turn to
Russian hockey experts to guide their enterprise – the KHL itself was formed from the Russian
Superleague (RSL) in 2007, and now boasts teams from as far afield as China, Belarus,
Kazakhstan and Finland. As Burdun himself puts it, “At the interstate Asian level, teams from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Georgia will be able to take part in tournaments, which in turn will attract highly qualified young players from Europe and Russia to play with the Emirati and expat members of the EHL.”
The kingdom is clearly taking the venture seriously – the newly renamed Coca-Cola Arena, the 17,000 seater stadium which opened this summer, was specifically designed to accommodate ice hockey, together with other sporting events and is part of an overall strategy which aims to bring 25,000,000 visitors annually by 2025.
It is somewhat fitting, then, that the EHL hosted their annual Open Cup earlier this month, which concluded with an astounding 8-2 victory for the Russian team over the team from Canada. The competition, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, is restricted to former professionals and amateurs and was founded with the specific intention of increasing the popularity of ice hockey amongst Arab countries. It is considered the best organised ice hockey tournament across Asia and features the highest level of teams.
The Russian team, which included 2002 World Cup finalists Alexander Guskov and Dmitry
Zatonsky, and which was led by industrialist Dmitry Bosov, had beaten both the Ukrainian team (4-
2) and the favourites, the host UAE team (8-4) on their way to the final. Bosov, who owns the Sibanthracite Group, scored a hat-trick in the nail-biting final on his way to a total score for the match of 4 goals – fully half the winning team’s score.
The Emirates Hockey League was founded in 2009 by the country’s Winter Sports Federation and the Emirates Olympic Committee, and is licensed by the International Hockey Federation. Matches in the open tournament consist of three 20 minute periods. Power plays are not permitted.
Burdun said of the tournament: “The competition’s popularity is growing year by year. There are already very serious fans in attendance who have regularly come to cheer for their favourite teams and hockey players for a decade.”