Flags on the jerseys of four Solar Bears: England, US, Sweden, India/Canada
This little facet of our lives in the Middle East isn’t, from the outside, a matter of politics or religion or deep cultural division. It’s sport. But ice hockey in a country where temperatures in the winter rarely dip below 80F (and in the summer soar above 130F) automatically exhibits some of the best qualities of a Not Quite Right experience.
I help coach the youth team in Muscat, Oman — a team with the excellent name “Solar Bears.” Being involved with this team has several interesting features to it, things that reflect the expat experience in general:
1. The children (and their parents) hail from a wide variety of countries and cultures: various places in America, Canada, Finland, Sweden, India, and even England. Many of them have played ice hockey in their home countries, or their parents have played, and they bring a greater level of skating and hockey ability to the ice than I anticipated. They are also the best behaved group of hockey children I’ve ever met, having personally witnessed about 20 of them eating a quiet brunch, using their silverware appropriately–knifes and forks in the British way. It almost felt wrong, the lack of noise, the lack of wild energy at a hockey get-away weekend!
2. The rink: in Muscat we play on a tiny, 1/4-sized rink that was made in the early 80’s. It has a boarded-up 80’s-era mall attached to it, a dehumidifying system (necessary in the muggy air here!) that functions only intermittently, often leaving a dense fog in the building and causing drips to fall from the ceiling to the ice. Actual stalagmites of ice form where the drips hit the chilled surface. Even worse, a rat ran out of the Zamboni room our first day in the rink, crossing my wife’s feet! We occasionally skate on 1/2 inch of slushy water on top of the ice. It’s not the best place to play, but is an ice rink. Other rinks, in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, are full-sized, modern, great sheets of ice. Oman will soon open its own Olympic-sized sheet too, adjacent to a horse-training pavilion and right on the edge of the balmy, palm tree-lined ocean.
3. The equipment. Parents pool together resources, lending elbow pads, sticks, jerseys. Anyone visiting Canada or the US or Scandinavia ends up taking orders for various missing pieces of gear. Amazon.com gets a lot of business. Even something as simple as cloth-tape, for the shin pads and the blades of the sticks, is hard to find here.
4. Sand. Drying damp hockey gear in 100+ degree bright sunlight is a great thing. Getting sand, omnipresent, out from under skate blades, from between the joints of pads, from the fibers of socks, is another thing. Sand and sharp skate blades are arch-enemies and no one here knows how to properly operate a sharpener.
5. Energy/water. In a region where energy is in surplus (gas costs less than $1 a gallon) but water is in shortage, it is interesting to see that the countries have the motivation and the wherewithal to freeze water.
Overall, the experience is one that has broadened my children’s perspective. To keep them somewhat on pace with their peers back in the United States, to give them the opportunity to play this sport despite the climate, is a great, but strange and sometimes oddly priviledged experience.