They may be Lebanon’s national ice-hockey team but they are coached by a bus driver in Montréal, who is encouraging them to take a slapshot at international sports stardom.
By day Ralph Melki is a bus driver for Montréal’s public-transport authority. But after he’s parked up for the night he has a very different role as head coach of one of Lebanon’s newest and most surprising national institutions: its first national ice-hockey team. On this bitterly cold Monday night he’s wearing the second of those hats (a fetching Bauer cap) at an ice rink in the city’s west.
“This project is a dream come true,” says Melki. “I never thought it was going to move this quickly; people have been coming in from everywhere to try-out. I get calls and emails from all over, from Europe, the US and across Canada.”
How a national sports team came to be born almost 9,000 kilometers away from the country it purports to represent is curious, says Melki, as his players, proudly kitted out in the team’s red, white and green uniform, stylised cedar trees emblazoned across their chests, zip around the ice nearby. “We’d never taken it seriously enough to bring it together as a project,” says Melki, competing against the shouts of his players – in French, English and Lebanese Arabic – on the ice as well as the thuds of the hockey pucks as they ricochet around the edges of the rink. “Until about two years ago, when we said, ‘Alright, enough talking, let’s do something about it.’”
Melki and the team’s co-founders surmised that the sheer number of people of Lebanese descent in Canada (about 200,000 according to the census of 2011), along with Canada’s rich pedigree in ice hockey, made the idea something of a no-brainer – and that’s despite winter sports being a minority interest in Lebanon.
“I’m very grateful to be able to play with the Cedar on my chest,” says Rami Al-Kahi, a 26-year-old sales representative in between manoeuvres on the ice. “It gives us purpose. I’m super happy.”
Like their head coach, many of the players were refugees to Canada from Lebanon’s civil war, which lasted between 1975 and 1990, while others are first generation Lebanese-Canadians. “We came to Canada and were introduced to the sport and now we have the chance to bring it back to our country and introduce it to Lebanon,” says Charly Nasrallah, the team’s 37-year-old defenceman, who arrived in Canada as a child.
The team is currently gearing up for a major tournament in Abu Dhabi in April – the Arab Cup, the first international ice-hockey tournament to pit national ice-hockey teams from around the Arab Gulf and the Middle East against one another. “The ultimate goal is the Olympics,” says Melki, as the remaining players glide off the rink and head to the dressing room. “Maybe one day. You never know.”