By Tanya Alexander
As a woman going to live and work with College of the North Atlantic’s (CNA) campus in the Middle East State of Qatar in 2005, Mary Tilley had a lot of questions.
Would she be ok there on her own? Would she find things to do with her leisure time? Would the place be welcoming of her gender and her culture?
The Manuels, Newfoundland and Labrador native soon discovered she needn’t have worried. Not only did she find Qatar a welcoming and progressive country, she found one that is open to embracing the cultures of its many expatriates from around the world. She hadn’t been there long and was pleasantly surprised while exploring shopping centres in downtown Doha.
“I remember the first time I went to City Center mall shortly after I arrived in October, I saw this round ice rink in the mall. That kind of blew my mind. I hadn’t skated in something like 20 years, but this round rink piqued my interest,” shared Tilley.
“I rented some skates and quickly discovered they weren’t sharpened to the same Canadian standard. But that didn’t stop me.”
To find something familiar in her new far away home was a comfort to Tilley, and she began skating at the mall Friday mornings, the start of the weekend in Qatar. She became a regular fixture and crowds would stop and take notice of her dexterity on the ice; word got out that she had started playing hockey at seven or eight years old and was later part of a women’s league for over 10 years. Her fellow College of the North Atlantic – Qatar (CNA-Q) employees who were playing hockey in Doha welcomed her to join them.
“Dave Lee, who was playing hockey in Qatar at the time, really encouraged me,” said Tilley, “But unfortunately, I didn’t have my hockey gear.”
Lee is a long-time CNA-Q employee and self-professed “rink rat.” Once he discovered Tilley’s love for the game he thought of a way she could partake without her gear – refereeing. She got her chance at the very first Canada vs. Qatar game at City Center on November 30, 2005, which was put together by CNA-Q to celebrate the campus’s official inauguration.
That event marked the revival of Tilley’s love for hockey and something that, she says, was one of the most memorable experiences of her life.
“The pride of being Canadian, the pride of our national sport, hockey … that is what resonated in the rink in the City Center mall in Doha, Qatar this night,” she wrote in her journal following the game. “I was fortunate to have been able to enjoy one of the most surreal experiences of my life – to referee a hockey game on a sheet of ice in a shopping centre in the Middle East. You can’t ever imagine how it feels to be a proud Canadian until some life circumstance puts you in that situation.”
Dave Lee says that inaugural game benefited greatly from Tilley’s refereeing skills. And he was thrilled when she had her hockey gear brought over in the new year.
“She was a fantastic referee for that historic Canada vs. Qatar game in 2005,” said Lee. “She then became our first female player and was known as the Ice Lady by her CNA-Q staff.”
Not only was the inaugural event momentous for Tilley, the entire tournament and its origins seemed to be surrounded by a bit of fate, said Lee.
“CBC TV came for CNA-Q’s inauguration. We found out Jonathan Crowe, a die-hard hockey fan and lover of the sport, was the reporter, so we reached out and asked if he wanted to play a game here in Doha. He jumped at it. It mushroomed from there, and by the time CBC got here we had set up a Canada vs. Qatar game,” Lee explained.
Team Qatar was all CNA-Q employees who wanted to play. Team Canada consisted of the remaining guys from their league, “mostly oil guys” from Canada at that time. However, Jonathan Crowe, Steve Bartlett [a reporter with Robinson-Blackmore at the time] and Stephen Lee [former Marketing and Communications Manager at CNA’s Headquarters] rounded out the Team C roster.
“We figured it was a good chance to get ice hockey on the Qatar map … and hopefully get a new regulation rink,” Lee laughed.
Crowe was thrilled to be part of the historic game and to visit the Middle East for the first time.
“It’s a truly different place … What struck me was the contrast of the ultra-modern city they were building and how quickly things developed; one morning you’d drive through the city and there would be sand in the median and the next day you’d see green grass with sprinklers going and flowers,” chuckled Crowe.
“One day we [he and CBC cameraman Bruce Tilley] went to the livestock markets … it was like going from the modern world to biblical times. I remember we set out to see what we could find and came upon some Sudanese camel herders. We ended up sitting cross-legged drinking tea with them. They didn’t know our language and we didn’t know theirs, but we shared tea. That was really nice.”
Crowe just couldn’t reconcile his reality with what he was experiencing there. Particularly as back home, Canada was in the throes of winter, and he was about to go play hockey in the desert.
“There I was collecting my gear off the patio of the hotel while looking out at the Middle Eastern landscape. That was cool. Then I was playing hockey on a circular rink with no glass around it, and I couldn’t figure out the flow at all,” he laughed.
“The most surreal thing was looking up and guys in thobes [traditional robes worn by males] looking down from the upper levels watching us play hockey.”
One thing that stuck with him was being at the rink the day before the game, in his reporter capacity, interviewing youth and coaches at the minor hockey practice session.
“I met a South African little boy; he and his parents lived on the other side of the peninsula. Picture this – they would drive across the desert every Saturday to play hockey. I think this boy must have been about 10 years old,” said Crowe. “That’s how much hockey means to them.”
Unbeknownst to the Canada vs. Qatar players at that time, Stephenville, Newfoundland and Labrador (where CNA’s Headquarters is located) had been chosen to host Hockey Day in Canada for the following January. Apparently, some of the footage from the Canada vs. Qatar game made it to the televised coverage of that national Canadian event.
“We were honoured when H.E. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Mohammed Bin Saud Al Thani, Chairman of the Joint Oversight Board of CNA-Q, accepted our invitation to officially drop the puck at the Canada vs. Qatar game, and that footage ended up on Hockey Day in Canada in 2006,” said Lee.
“That was incredible! With all the buzz here in Qatar in 2005 and then with the Hockey Day in Canada coverage, it got us thinking that we have to build on this. So we got to work creating our first Desert Cup Ice Hockey Tournament, which went ahead in February 2006, and has continued annually ever since.”
The game was not only the genesis for the Desert Cup, it was a turning point for the entire Canadian-Qatar relationship. The desert country has embraced the cool sport, particularly Qatar’s youth, and Dave Lee is thrilled to have been around to see that happen.
“Around 2003 or 2004 I remember this young Qatari named Thamer. He said to me, ‘Sir, I see this game … I want to play.’ Music to my ears at that time,” Lee said.
“He was probably around 12 when he began playing shinny with us on Wednesday nights. Since then he has become a great leader and today helps coach the younger kids.”
Thamer Almohannadi says he first fell in love with the game from watching it on Canadian television.
“This attracted my attention and from that day I began to love it. I looked everywhere in Qatar to play the game with a team and get some practice to develop myself,” said Almohannadi.
When he began to skate with Dave Lee and other expats, he discovered he had a talent for it. He was hooked and devoted himself to becoming a great player. He played as a junior in the Canadian junior league until the Qatar Olympic committee formed a national team. Today he is the captain of that team.
“The Qatar national ice hockey team had a big impact in our life as players in the Gulf region; we represent the team in the best way we can to show to the world this game. This game has changed our lives on different levels.”
Another young player that stands out to Lee is Naif Al-Rumaihi.
“He wears #99,” Lee said with a smile. “He is a pretty strong player and also does some speed skating and kids’ coaching.”
Al-Rumaihi is 26 years old, and says he started to play hockey when he was around 16.
“To start, I played public skating then I saw the Canadian team while they were on a game. It was so fun and I enjoyed it; from that time I felt interested in being a part of this great game and I got started,” Al-Rumaihi recalled fondly.
“Canadians welcomed us; they were so helpful, and we learned a lot from their experience. A team was formed with all the support given from Qatar Olympic committee and we have been participating in international tournaments. I would like to thank the Qatar ice hockey federation and the Qatar International Ice Hockey League (QIIHL).”
These days Mary Tilley is back in Newfoundland working with CNA as Manager of Business Solutions in St. John’s. She reflects on her three years working in Qatar as an exciting, rewarding time. And in no small part due to her hockey experience.
“I’ll always cherish my time in Qatar,” Tilley shared. “And especially my time on the rink.”
She has been part of a legacy of culture-sharing in Qatar, like many of the pioneers who brought their love of Canada’s favourite pastime to the country.
Lee says there are many who have made hockey what it is in Qatar, but a few in particular stand out, including Greg Scott, veteran player and CNA-Q employee, who served as President of the QIIHL from 2006-2008 and again from 2010-2013, and has contributed significantly to the growth of the game.
“Known by all players as Gregger, his passion and commitment to the game helped keep the sport alive in Qatar.”
Lee also credited Vince Stack, a CNA-Q employee who has remained in Doha since the early days.
“He is a strong player on the ice, and also the IT guy behind our website design and maintenance since 2004.”
The late Jim Hughes was another such Canadian who made an impact on the game and the people in Qatar. He was one of the first to introduce hockey to the country and it was he who was instrumental in designing, procuring and installing a safety net around the newly constructed regulation rink at Villagio Mall in 2008. Lee was there then, and remembers when they met.
“I met Jim in 2002 in the early days of construction at CNA-Q” Lee recalled. “He was a great mentor to a rookie in the Middle East. On and off the ice, he was an inspiration to young and old. At 72, he was the envy of many and these words were spoken often, ‘I hope I can still play when I’m Jim’s age. What an inspiration!’ His contribution to the growth of hockey and the QIIHL in Qatar can only be equated to his love of the game.”
Upon Hughes’ passing in October 2018, the QHL posted a tribute to him on its website.
“The Q Hockey league is saddened by the loss of a long time Qatar Qanuck. Jim Hughes was a player and tireless supporter of hockey in the desert,” stated the tribute. “We can say thanks to Jim whenever a puck flies into the netting and not onto someone’s dinner or worse, onto someone’s head. Jim gave his time, his intelligence and … his heart to hockey in Qatar.”
There is a plaque mounted in his honour at the Villaggio Mall ice rink.
The legacy of the game in Qatar has brought together people of diverse backgrounds from all around the world and given them a common purpose.
“The game gives us an opportunity to play and enjoy the greatest game in the world, in the desert, where the heat can sometimes reach 50 degrees Celsius,” said Lee. “It’s a great chance to meet players from all over the globe who have the same passion for the game. Friendships have been created that will last a lifetime.”