Ihab Ayed, president and founder of the Tunisian Ice Hockey Association, is intent on bringing the sport to Tunisian soil.
By Jake Jaffe | Aug 26 2014France ,Hockey ,Ihab Ayed ,Les Berges du Lac ,sports ,
Tunisians are no strangers to fringe sports. While soccer and handball reign supreme over the country’s athletic landscape, Tunisia is home to a variety of games, outdoor activities, and competitions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, traditional winter sports such as ice hockey are nearly non-existent. If Ihab Ayed has his way, however, that will soon begin to change.
For me, it was an honor to be the first to try to develop this sport in Tunisia and to help make it accessible to Tunisians. [...] It was a big revolution, the first step in the dream of my life.”
“For me, it was an honor to be the first to try to develop this sport in Tunisia and to help make it accessible to Tunisians,” he told Tunisia Live. “It was a big revolution, the first step in the dream of my life.”
That dream took a major step forward on June 14, 2014, when a 23-man squad took to the ice in Courbevoie, France, to compete in Tunisia’s first-ever international match, a 5-6 defeat against French squad Les Coqs de Courbevoie.
Roughly 500 spectators attended the match. “People are curious,” he said. “[Our team] actually received support from various embassies in Tunisia, [… as well as] the Tunisian Ambassador in France.”
Tunisia’s traditional national pastime is undeniably soccer. The country’s domestic soccer league is wildly popular, and international matches are ubiquitous in cafes and restaurants. Still, Ayed believes that Tunisians are always looking for something new.
“In Tunisia, there are always the same kinds of events,” he said. “You have [soccer], etc. I feel that people are looking for new sports, and that is what we are offering with hockey.”
For Ayed, the sky is the limit. Building a Tunisian hockey federation will take time, he acknowledged. However, the endeavor has received considerable public support and media coverage.
While the June match in France represented a significant milestone in the sport’s growth, the next step is to bring the game to Tunisian soil.
“I am proud to play for and in the name of Tunisia,” Ayed added. “All of my players are. Still, we would prefer to play in Tunisia.”
That may be possible starting next year. In 2015, the Berges du Lac area of Tunis will welcome an “Ice Mall,” a shopping center with an ice rink with expected seating capacity for up to 1,000 spectators. Ayed identified the venue as a potential match site until a more extensive hockey infrastructure is established.
If Tunisian hockey is to succeed, its supporters will need to secure private investment, Ayed added. “Every association needs private sponsors. Our players pay for their own flights.”
Private sponsorship would at least allow organizers to compensate players, most of whom must travel internationally to participate in matches, for such expenses.
While none of the current roster’s players hold Tunisian passports, they all have at least one Tunisian parent and are, therefore, eligible to apply for citizenship.
“All of the players are very proud to be there for their nation,” Ayed said. “Some of the players didn’t know Tunisia very well [before joining]. Playing has helped them to learn more about their country.”
The team tries to play every year, he added. Balancing players’ professional commitments, however, makes doing so difficult.
Hockey in the Region
Ayed first discovered hockey at an ice rink near his childhood home in France. The sport has been an integral part of his life ever since.
“I’ve noticed that ice hockey has become more and more popular during the last few years,” he said. “In particular, Arab countries are among the more recent [applicants] for membership in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).”
Morocco is an associate member in the IIHF, for example. Algeria has applied for membership as well. Associate membership indicates that the country either lacks a fully independent national association or participates only to a limited extent in IIHF championships.
Ultimately, Ayed hopes to establish a formal Tunisian hockey federation as a step toward full IIHF membership. He intends to build on the sport’s regional popularity to build momentum toward his goal.
“Ideally, the first step would be the organization of a North African Cup with our colleagues from Morocco and Algeria [next summer] in Marseille, France,” he said.
While Ayed’s passion is hockey, he describes a Tunisian affinity for the unorthodox which he thinks will provide a fan base for other fringe sports as well. He would like to be an “ambassador” for all winter sports in Tunisia and hopes to see his country participate in upcoming Olympic Winter Games.
For now, Ayed is content to set his sights on hockey. While the ATHG has overcome a number of hurdles to get where it is today, raising the sport’s profile in Tunisia will surely be difficult. Armed with indefatigable enthusiasm and a team of likeminded individuals, however, he is determined to give it a shot.
Fanny Ohier contributed reporting