Lebanon gets its own national hockey team — and it's in Montreal
"Twenty bucks, guys," says a player who's just suited up in his hockey gear, as he makes his way around the locker room collecting his teammates' contribution to pay for the ice time at Montreal's Collège Brébeuf arena.
It's after 10 p.m.
Most of the guys are here after work, and they have to get up early the next morning to return to their jobs.
It's a scene repeated at beer-league hockey games in arena locker rooms across the country.
These players, however, aren't your average beer leaguers. They're members of Lebanon's first national ice hockey team.
Canadian hockey players speak of the immense pride they feel when they pull on the maple leaf jersey to represent their country. The Lebanese players say they feel the same way about the cedar tree — the national symbol of Lebanon.
"I feel like someone gave me a mission, and this mission is to represent my country," said winger Joe Bouhaidar.
Bouhaidar, 29, was born in Quebec City and grew up playing hockey, reaching Midget AAA.
"Since I'm young, I always wanted to play for a national team," he said. "Obviously, it's a great honour to play for a team like Canada or U.S.A.
"When I heard [Lebanon] has a national team, I said I have to try myself there and give it all I got. I made the team, and I was pretty happy."
'I was just hooked'
Claude Kfoury, 39, didn't lace up skates until his teen years. His family came to Canada in 1991 to escape the violence in their war-torn home country.
The defenceman remembers, soon after he arrived, watching the 1991 Stanley Cup finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Minnesota North Stars.
"I was just hooked."
Kfoury wanted to play right away. One problem: his family arrived in May.
"No more ice, no more snow," said Kfoury. "The next winter, I was playing in the parks around Ville Saint-Laurent. I was on the ice for 10 hours a day. I didn't want to leave, I didn't want to eat. Since then, I hit it off and I haven't stopped skating."
Why not Lebanon?
The team was the brainchild of Ralph Melki and a group of friends — Lebanese Montrealers who loved the game.
Melki, now the team's coach, said they realized other Middle Eastern and Arab teams have national teams. So why not Lebanon?
"We started something here in Canada, because there's a lot of Lebanese in Quebec. There's a lot of Lebanese that play the game, and this is how it all started," said Melki.
The group created a Facebook page, and word spread. At the first tryout last spring, 75 players came out.
There's no formal structure. The team doesn't even play in a league at the moment, instead arranging exhibition games against other national teams such as Egypt, Morocco, Haiti, Algeria.
Melki says Lebanon's team has players coming in from Toronto, Ottawa, Michigan and France. Four players even flew in from Calgary for the team's first game in April.
That game was a 7-4 win over Team Haiti — a group of Montrealers who grew up playing hockey much the way the Lebanese players did.
Since that first win against Haiti, the Lebanese national team has gone on to beat Egypt and Morocco. Tonight they play Algeria — a team made up of players of Algerian descent now living in France.
Melki says the team is aiming for a bigger stage — being accepted into the International Ice Hockey Federation. To accomplish that, the team needs the backing of the Lebanese government and proof that the country has at least one ice hockey rink and a league with teams.
No politics, no religion on the ice
Skating on the national team has done more than bring hockey players together from far and wide.
It has also bridged a stark cultural and political gap: the two prominent religions back home, Islam and Christianity, have long been a source for conflict.
Once the players pull on their jerseys with the cedar tree on the front, political and religious differences are set aside.
"No one talks about it," said Bouhaidar. "We look like a united team, and that's what we like about it. I have fun with those guys. Now I'm chilling with those guys outside of the ice, and before I didn't know them."
"We're all Lebanese, we all care about the cedar," said Coach Melki. "So once they put that jersey on: 'Be proud to represent your country.'"
Tonight's matchup between Lebanon and Algeria takes place at Place Bell, 1950 Claude-Gagné Street in Laval.
Game time is 9:15 p.m. ET.