ARLINGTON, Va. - February is Hockey Is For Everyone month across the NHL as the league is showcasing the diverse global appeal of the "coolest game on earth." That was on display at practice for the Washington Capitals on Wednesday where they welcomed a player from the other side of the world – both geographically and culturally.
The Capitals roster is a tapestry woven from the threads of seven different nations. But never has a player from the Arab world taken the ice with the team until today.
Fatima Al Ali, a hockey player, referee and coach from United Arab Emirates is living out every hockey fan's dream. She took the ice with her favorite players in her team’s sweater.
Al Ali was discovered by Capitals great Peter Bondra, who was wowed by her stickhandling while teaching a hockey clinic in the United Arab Emirates.
“As a hockey guy, I was amazed with her skills,” Bondra said. “She mentioned she just started playing six years ago. It's unbelievable.”
The United Arab Emirates is progressive toward women when compared to the rest of the Persian Gulf. But compared to the western world, women like Al Ali are still treated like second-class citizens.
“So many people are telling me that I'm breaking barriers and getting ladies more into hockey out,” she said.
But when she takes the ice, Al Ali is on equal footing with her male counterparts – right down to the ultimate in hockey toughness – the ability to take a punch.
“One of the players punched me in the face trying to break up a fight,” she recalled about a previous incident. “I just went off the ice, cleaned the blood and back on the ice.”
The 26-year-old added, “You have to finish what you started. You can't just quit halfway through.”
As a society, we tend put up a lot of barriers – from language barriers to cultural barriers all the way to physical barriers. But one constant that breaks those barriers is sports.
Hockey is the same game whether it's played on frozen ponds in Ontario, Canada, the Capitals training complex in Arlington, Virginia or on a climate-controlled patch of ice in the middle of the desert.
“Every walk of life, every nationality, they got their team and they are all in,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “There are no barriers. For all the things that go on in the world, it's sort of just washed away from that.”
“That’s what all sports are for – to bring the world together,” said Al Ali.