Lebanon's Montreal-based hockey team aiming for international recognition
In first year of hockey action, Cedars made Arab Cup final in Abu Dhabi. Puck drops Friday for season 2
The Cedars have only been together for about a year, and they've made it to the finals of an international tournament.
Now, the members of Lebanon's national ice hockey team, which is based in Montreal, where players and arenas are more plentiful, begin their second season with a different goal in mind — gaining recognition from the governing body for ice hockey, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).
"The whole idea of Team Lebanon is to bring it eventually to the international level," said head coach Ralph Melki, one of the team's founders.
If they make it into the IIHF, the Cedars would join the ranks of hockey powerhouses Canada, USA and Russia, along with teams from other Arab countries such as Morocco, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar.
The team is made up primarily of men of Lebanese descent who grew up playing the game on this side of the Atlantic.
Most are from Montreal, but there are players from Ontario, Western Canada, the U.S. and Europe who came on board once they discovered local organizers had iced a team.
After playing a series of exhibition games over the winter — and making the final of the Arab Cup in Abu Dhabi — the Cedars are eager to be inducted into the IIHF.
But first they need to form a Lebanese Ice Hockey Federation. Melki says he and other team organizers are in talks with the government in Beirut to get that support.
"It's a work in progress. We have good vibes," said Melki. "We already started talking, and everything's going smoothly."
Melki and his colleagues have also met the Lebanese Olympic Committee to introduce its members to the fledgling Lebanese ice hockey team and share the story of their success in Abu Dhabi.
Melki says it's important to nail down that "federation" designation, to legitimize his group's efforts.
Golden opportunity to impress
Team Lebanon is playing its first game of the season against a senior men's team from Argenteuil, northwest of Montreal.
Lebanon's foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, is in town for a major event for the Lebanese diaspora, and he will be in attendance, dropping the puck for the ceremonial opening faceoff at McGill University's McConnell Arena.
Melki says a positive showing on the ice can only help gain the recognition and support the team needs from the Lebanese government.
"It's of tremendous importance, having someone as high, politically, coming to Montreal to watch our game, to witness what's happening and to see what we're doing" said Melki. "It's only going to be positive words when they go back home to Lebanon."
Ice hockey to catch on?
Retired professional Lebanese basketball player and sports media personality Tony Baroud will also be at the game.
"People love ice hockey in Lebanon," said Baroud. "Unfortunately, we don't have a team playing there."
Baroud believes the team will attract legions of Lebanese fans, not least because so many Lebanese people have relatives in Canada.
"We are adding something new to Lebanon," he said. "It's really a very good step."
Melki, too, thinks that back in Lebanon, the game will catch on.
"It's a fast game. It's intense, and I'm sure they're going to like it," said Melki. "I don't think it's going to be a problem for them to fall in love with the game, knowing that they have a competitive team, training in Canada."
"All we want to do is represent our country."