William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for nine years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019, writing about People of Color in Sports. Today he portrays Ralph Melki and the national hockey program of Lebanon.
CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – Ralph Melki thought it must have been a mistake.
Why else would the Amerigol LATAM Cup organizers appoint a coach and co-founder of Lebanon‘s national ice hockey program and invite him to the tournament in Coral Springs, Florida in October?
“When I was first approached, my first reaction was ‘We are not a Latin American country’,” said Melki. “We are the Middle East.”
The Lebanese Ice Hockey Federation’s men’s and women’s teams competed in the Florida Panthers IceDen tournament after reassurance that it was not a mistake.
Lebanon has found a kinship with the Latin American and Caribbean countries and territories, which also want to establish themselves on the international hockey stage and cherish Olympic dreams.
“You say, ‘Hockey, Lebanon, Lebanon, hockey?’ It doesn’t match, “said Melki, a Montreal city bus driver who was born in Lebanon and came to Canada when he was 6. “But you can play hockey in the desert now, so why not in Lebanon?”
That was Melki’s thought when he, Montreal compatriot Charles El-Mir, and others started the Lebanese program, which is made up of Lebanese players who live mainly in Canada and the United States.
They made it their mission to bring ice hockey back to a country where basketball and soccer are some of the most popular sports and one day they will take part in the Winter Olympics.
A lot has to be done for this, including the construction of an indoor ice rink in Lebanon. But Melki said the association was ready for the challenge.
“The idea is to bring the sport of hockey back and re-introduce it to the Lebanese community by taking advantage of the Lebanese diaspora around the world because there are many Lebanese all over the world, especially in Montreal,” he said. “The idea was always to bring Lebanese together out of love for the game, out of love for the country.”
Hockey was formerly played in Lebanon, brought in by Canadian expats, and played on an ice rink that closed more than a decade ago and has since grown into a television production facility.
He said the idea of âârevitalizing the sport in the country started with Lebanese friends in Montreal talking about their passion for the sport and how some other Middle Eastern nations have hockey teams.
The conversation resulted in a fundraiser that drew 1,100 people to a local ice rink, Melki said. It wasn’t long before a Lebanese men’s team started a Barnstorm to publicize their cause.
“We created a monster, and that’s how the whole adventure began,” said Melki. “If there is the opportunity to go to a tournament somewhere, if we can do it, we’ll be there. That brings visibility and that’s what we need if we want to bring the sport home.”
They reached the final of the Arab Cup in Abu Dhabi in 2018 and lost 5-3 to a team from the host United Arab Emirates.
The Lebanese Ice Hockey Federation was recognized by the Lebanese Ministry of Youth and Sports in 2018, and the country became an associate member of the International Ice Hockey Federation in 2019, along with Algeria, Colombia, Iran and Uzbekistan.
The main obstacle to full IIHF membership for Lebanon is the lack of an indoor ice rink in the country, a hurdle shared by Colombia, Jamaica, and other associate members.
“As soon as you have an ice rink and [host] a national championship in the country, then we become a full member, “he said.” We need help, investors. It will be a challenge for us. We make it possible. It’s always good to have a challenge and see what can happen. “
Performing well in tournaments like the LATAM Cup will strengthen Lebanon’s ice hockey profile, Melki said, and help it attract more players and perhaps the much-needed investors for an ice rink.
The Lebanese Division I men’s team finished the tournament 3-1-0 in the round robin and playoff competition, while the women’s team finished 2-3-0.
“None of us are doing this for us now, we’re only doing it for the next generation,” said Ricardo Tabet, a Lebanese defender from Montreal. “It’s going to be a long process, but we’re laying the foundation for kids to follow … to play for Team Lebanon and one day at the Olympics. That’s the whole goal.”
Photos: Courtesy of BC Photo