(AFP) — In the world of ice hockey, the Bat Yam Chiefs and Dubai Mighty Camels are big unknowns.
Yet both clubs have written a little page of history in recent days, taking part in the first sports match between teams from Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
The Israeli city of Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, on the shores of the Mediterranean, is better known for its sandy beaches, an idyllic climate and its retired Mossad agents, than for its ice hockey club.
Indeed, Bat Yam doesn’t even have an ice rink.
Yet the town does have the Chiefs — the same name as the failing team that finds success in the 1970s film Slap Shot, a comedy classic for ice hockey — which played two matches last week against the Mighty Camels in Dubai.
In September, the UAE became only the third Arab country to normalize ties with Israel, following Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, signing the deal in a ceremony at the White House.
Before this agreement, cyclists with dual nationality — including Israeli — had already traveled to the Emirates.
But the ice hockey clash, with two matches played on December 18 and 19, was the “first game” played by an Israeli team on Emirati soil, the organizers say.
They even received the blessing of Gary Bettman, commissioner of the National Hockey League (NHL).
“We are proud of the fact that hockey can bring people together,” Bettman said, in a video message, in which he sent “greetings for this most historic occasion… the first professional match between a team from Israel and a team from the Emirates.”
Bettman, who heads the professional ice hockey league in North America, said he hoped it would be the “first of many such events.”
Hockey in Jerusalem?
“The attitude was friendly because it was the first match between teams from the two countries,” Josh Greenberg, co-organizer of the matches and a player for the Chiefs, told AFP.
The Bat Yam Chiefs won both games.
After the “first leg,” the Israeli club now wants to welcome their sporting rivals for a return match.
“Eventually the Dubai Camels will come to Israel to play a game here,” said Greenberg, an Israeli from the United States. “There is no timeline yet — it’s all depending on Covid.”
Israel currently has three ice hockey arenas — in Holon, where the Bat Yam Chiefs train near Tel Aviv, Metula in the north of Israel and a new ice rink in Tvunot near Jerusalem — but Greenberg thinks even bigger.
“I have a dream that it will be in Jerusalem …it makes perfect sense to me for an Israeli team to play the Dubai team in Jerusalem in a 10,000-seat stadium,” he said.
In 2017, during the Maccabiah Games, a competition bringing together Jewish athletes from around the world, ice hockey matches were played in the middle of July at Jerusalem’s Pais Arena, a multi-sport hall with 11,000 seats with a refrigeration system to create an indoor ice rink.
“If you bring both these teams… you are going to have many different people who’d love to see it,” he said.
“You would have Jews, Arabs, North Americans, Russians… There is no doubt in my mind we can fill the place up.”
Greenberg also wants to “play in other countries”.
In addition to the Emirates, Israel has announced agreements in recent months with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, a country that also has an ice hockey team.
“Let’s go to another country,” said Greenberg, who dreams of creating an ice hockey league for the greater Middle East.
“Morocco is definitely in mind.”