Canadians help Lebanon chase Olympic hockey dream

Canadians help Lebanon chase Olympic hockey dream

A group of young Canadian women are hoping to help Lebanon make history and realize their own Olympic dreams by trying out to join the country's inaugural national women's hockey team.

More than two dozen women from across Canada, the United States and Mexico have travelled to Ottawa on their own dime to try out for the team this weekend.

Lebanon is recruiting North Americans because the country has no domestic talent to draw from. The country doesn't even have a regulation-size rink.

Although the team has the support of the Lebanese government, it is effectively run by North Americans with Lebanese heritage. Coach Ralph Melki is from Montreal, while manager Sally Tarabah is from Philadelphia. 

The main pre-requisite for trying out for the team is that the players must have Lebanese ancestry on their father's side, Tarabah said.

"Every single person (trying out) on the team is of Lebanese descent. Current Lebanese law is that citizenship is via the father or grandfather or great grandfather," she said. 

This weekend's tryouts at the Bob MacQuarrie Recreation Complex in the east-end neighbourhood of Orléans represent the culmination of months of tryouts.

Among those in attendance, the youngest is fifteen years old, while the oldest is 36.

Ottawa teenager Nisrene Darwiche, who plays for the Nepean Wildcats, is competing for a spot on the roster. Although the 16-year-old was born and raised in Canada, she hopes to set a new example for girls in her ancestral home.

"I want to break barriers for middle-eastern women in sports... although ice hockey isn't a thing back home, Lebanese women can still play this type of sport."

Diverse skill range

Organizers, unsure of what the turnout would be, deliberately did not put a restriction on skill level for the tryouts.

Coach Ralph Melki wants a team that can compete in the Olympics and says he has been pleasantly surprised by the calibre of player they've been able to attract. 

Judy Trinh/CBC

"There's girls coming from the NCAA, playing college level in the U.S., so it's a good hockey calibre," he said. "[Then] there's players playing recreational for fun and other girls who were playing a high level in the past, but the passion of hockey is still there." 

Suelana Taha is hoping to make the team as a dark-horse recruit. The 32-year-old works at CHEO and only started playing recreational hockey three years ago. Taha may not make the last cut, but knows she can still be part of history.

"We're the first team who has ever tried this, so I can tell my grandchildren I was cool at some point in my life." 

The final roster will be determined this weekend, but getting Lebanon's national women's team certified by the International Ice Hockey Federation will take longer.

To even be considered for the Olympics, organizers must first raise funds to help build a regulation-size arena in Lebanon that seats at least 500 people.