Omar Ali Al Shamsi, the Al Ain Theebs captain, is expecting the new Emirates Hockey League (EHL) season to once again be closely-contested between his team and Dubai White Bears.
Theebs topped last season's EHL table by one point ahead of the White Bears only to lose 2-0 in the three-game playoffs final.
Theebs managed to exact a modicum of revenge on the White Bears over the weekend by beating their rivals 5-4 at the Al Ain Ice Rink in the opening game of the new EHL season.
“It was real close against the champions and this is the kind of rivalry we would expect from all teams this season,” said Al Shamsi, who is also the UAE vice-captain.
“It’s going to be very tough and challenging again. For us, it was a good start from which we want to continue building the team for the remainder of the season.
“My gut feeling is that it will be the Bears and Theebs that all others have to beat, just like last season.”
The White Bears took the lead through Ivan Donic but Theebs hit back three times with goals from Artsiom Katktski, Artur Zainutdinov and Jure Stopar for a 3-1 lead in the first period.
The visitors responded with three unanswered goals, with Donic scoring his second, followed by strikes from Alexey Privalov and Janko Kucera.
But goals from Hazza Al Saadi and Zainutdinov led the Theebs fightback to ensure the hosts emerged victorious.
Three-time champions Dubai Mighty Camels edged out city rivals Dubai Vipers 6-5, while Abu Dhabi Scorpions demolished Abu Dhabi Storms 9-2 in the UAE capital.
The Camels are the most successful team in the EHL, winning the title in 2012, 2013, and 2016. However, they finished third last season before bowing out in the play-off quarter-finals against the Storms.
Camels captain Ron Murphy, who is one of the longest serving players in the EHL since it was founded in 2009/2010, is confident his team can challenge for the title again this season.
“We were fortunate to win the EHL three times and reach the finals three times,” the Canadian said. “The league has been improving all the time and the bar raised every passing year. We need to keep looking for new players and we have three joining us this season.”
Patrik Valcak from the Czech Republic who has played professionally in Europe, American Chris Doolan and Kirill Stogney from Ukraine are the new faces in the Camels squad.
“It was a really good game back and forth,” Murphy said of his team’s opening game for the season. “They scored first and then we got two. They tied it up and we managed to come out as the winners at the end.
“The Vipers are a hard-working team but we are a more skilled team. There are a lot of friends in that team and we have a very friendly relationship with them which makes it hard to play against a team like them.”
Scorpions, too, have recruited three new players for this season, and captain Kelly Ryan singled out Finn Aleksi Hirvonen for special praise.
“Aleksi is a very nice addition to the team,” Ryan said. “Otherwise the bulk of the squad remains the same. We want to keep the consistency which is important.”