KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait – The United Arab Emirates hockey team entered the 2011 IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia favored to win the gold medal after last year’s champions, Chinese Taipei pulled out of the competition. That didn’t faze Hong Kong, who defeated the UAE 5-4 on Monday, the opening day of the event.
It was the only truly competitive match of the three games played in the first round – Thailand humiliated India in a 29-0 rout, followed by the UAE-Hong Kong bout. The opening ceremony was then held, followed by Kuwait’s 8-3 win over Macau. The UAE team is comprised of members of the Abu Dhabi Storms in the nation’s domestic league and is coached by former Finnish defender Matti Fagerstrom. Fagerstrom, who led the team through a training camp in preparation for the event, expressed some concerns in a press conference held in Zayed Sports City prior to their departure for Kuwait.
“We have some problems regarding the injuries of key players and the work obligations of the players did not help us much, but we are optimistic…we hope to achieve good results,” Fagerstrom said.
The Challenge Cup of Asia, now in its fourth year, provides Asian countries not in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Championship program, or that play in the lowest division, an opportunity to compete. It also aids in the development of ice hockey in Asia and helps rank the Asian teams in advance of the Asian Winter Games.
This year’s championship will be played in a league format, with the team that finishes with the highest points declared the winner. Participating countries include the UAE, Hong Kong, India, Kuwait, Macau and Thailand.
The inaugural event was held in Hong Kong in 2008 with six teams participating, followed by eight-teams in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates in 2009 and nine-teams in Taipei in 2010. Chinese Taipei, the national team of the Republic of China, won the championship in 2008 but did not compete in 2009 when the UAE earned the gold medal on home ice. Chinese Taipei won the event again in 2010, after edging the UAE 3-2 on the final day of competition.
The UAE became the first Arab nation to play in the IIHF World Championship when they took part in the Division Three tournament at Luxembourg in April last year, finishing the tournament in the bottom team behind Ireland, Luxembourg and Greece. They won the bronze medal behind Kyrgyzstan, the hosts, and Thailand in the Asian Winter Games Men’s Premier Division in February.
The UAE team also won the inaugural Gulf Cup in Kuwait last year and were set to host the 2011 championship, but the event has been postponed to next year due to the political unrest in some Gulf countries.
Monday’s narrow opening round loss was a tough break for the squad many expected to win the gold medal.
“We are the favorites, but that doesn’t guarantee us the championship,” UAE defender Ebraheem bu Debs said. “We still need to go out there and win every game.”
Next up for the UAE is Tuesday’s match against Macau, followed by Kuwait on Wednesday, India on Friday and Thailand on Saturday.
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