Hockey fan flies across the world to practice with the Washington Capitals
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Fatima Al Ali, a soft-spoken hockey fan from the United Arab Emirates, had flown across the world after being invited by her favorite team.
Wearing a Capitals jersey and a hijab, the 27-year-old tried to make her heart stop pounding and her legs stop shaking. She sat on the bench at the team's practice rink Wednesday afternoon, surrounded by television cameras and photographers. Her younger brother sat next to her, and Al Ali kept leaning over, asking him to remind her to breathe.
She was called onto the ice for practice, and players tapped their sticks to welcome her, as she figured out a way to calm down.
"Just talking about hockey, something we all share and something we all love," she said.
Practicing With The Team
So she chatted with Russian Alex Ovechkin, her favorite player, about trying to find ice time in Abu Dhabi, and she talked with American T.J. Oshie, whose stick she borrowed. "To see the smile on her face out there, obviously she was doing what she loves," Oshie said.
She worked on scooping up the puck with Canadian Tom Wilson. When she later took a pass from Ovechkin and scored, the international team cheered, with Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov pumping his arm in celebration.
CBS Evening News, PBS, CNN and Reuters were at this Capitals practice because of the young woman in the hijab. Many Muslim women wear such scarves every day for religious reasons.
Al Ali's visit came as the country debates President Donald Trump's order temporarily barring refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. The UAE is a U.S. ally and was not one of the seven countries.
On the ice, however, they weren't talking about international relations.
Sharing A Love Of The Game
"For me, it's just a hockey player seeing another hockey player go out there and have some fun," Oshie said. "I don't really need to or want to get into the political stuff. My first impression was just that it's cool that someone from so far away can still share the love of the game."
This started thousands of miles away with "The Mighty Ducks" hockey movie. Al Ali speaks flawless English, which she attributed to watching movies. As a kid, she fixated on the hockey movies "Slap Shot," "Miracle" and the 1992 Ducks film about an unlikely team of skaters.
"Hockey was something different, more interesting than soccer," she said.
In 2008, she saw a brochure advertising an upcoming men's tournament. She showed up at the tournament with her camera, and organizers asked her to take photos of their team. That team became a club known as the Abu Dhabi Storms, and Al Ali became its photographer. In 2010 the club established a women's team and the players repeatedly asked their photographer to join them on the ice.
She resisted but finally she told them to get her equipment.
Al Ali Says Hockey Makes Her Feel Alive
"I just fell in love with the game," she said, adding, "It almost just makes me alive, makes me have energy."
Abu Dhabi, she said, has one hockey rink, with one sheet of ice, which is usually occupied by men's teams. The closest women's competition is in Dubai, about an hour away. Still, she did everything she could to stay around the game, coaching children and skating with men, who worried about injuring her. She began officiating, both international girls' tournaments and the local league. Once, she tried to break up an on-ice fight and got punched in the head, which led some of the men's players to suggest maybe this wasn't the place for a toothpick-thin young woman.
"I'm not getting out," she told them. "This is hockey."
She also became a National Hockey League fan, streaming games as soon as she arrived at work in the morning.
Tricks With A Stick
She watched videos of stickhandling tricks performed by Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk and others on YouTube. "OK, I should try this," she thought. Years of practice later, there she was at her home rink, spinning around a puck that seemed glued to her stick. Retired Capitals star Peter Bondra happened to be visiting the rink that day, and someone told him to look at Al Ali.
"The way she handled the puck, it was amazing," Bondra recalled.
He asked whether he could take a video of her tricks to post on his Twitter account. As the video went viral and U.S. hockey reporters took notice, the two struck up a friendship.
When Bondra learned that her favorite team was the Capitals, he promised to take her to Verizon Center if she ever visited D.C. A few days later, she texted to ask whether the offer stood, and he told her, "Of course, that always will stand." By that time, the team was working to bring her to Washington.
A Visit With The Capitals Team
Al Ali and her younger brother Mohammed arrived in Washington this week. Before going to practice, she had lunch with the team's executives and visited with the team's stars in their Verizon Center dressing room.
Al Ali didn't want to talk about politics, but her brother said he was nervous coming to Washington in this climate and also hopeful that their visit could be significant. "I believe it might give people a different look at how it is in the Middle East or the UAE," he said. "We're the same as you guys."
Al Ali was more than happy to talk about her excitement over the trip, saying, "I've been trying to come to D.C. since I started hockey ... A dream is coming true."
Coach Barry Trotz answered questions about their visitor from across the world.
"This generation of players now, I think, understand that there is diversity in the world and our game is for everybody," Trotz said. "Just seeing her smile and the guys having fun and doing all that – I think that's a good message for society right now."