By Martin Merk – IIHF.com
Morocco beat Ireland 11-4 in the final to win the inaugural Development Cup. It was the first time Morocco won an international tournament in the event that also included Portugal, which finished third, and host Andorra.
The four-team tournament is an initiative from some of the smaller IIHF member countries not part of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program to give them an opportunity to play amongst each other similar like the IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia for the Asian members.
Morocco was the strongest team both in the preliminary round and in the final. The team that mostly consists of Moroccans who learned and played their hockey in Europe and the Canadian province of Quebec finished the event with a 4-0 record.
Ireland has been the toughest opponent in the preliminary round – even though scores may tell otherwise – and it was similar in the final between the two most skilled and physically strongest teams. During Morocco’s first power play Thomas Carpenter gave Ireland the lead on a breakaway but a few moments later Mehdi Ghazi converted the man advantage to tie the game.
The Moroccans continued to be strong and were ice-cold with their chances. Hakim Bouchaoui gained Morocco its first lead and a natural hat trick from Damien Bourguignon made it 5-1 for Morocco after one period.
“Of course it was great to have such a good start but even if I scored three goals it was not just me, it was great work from the whole team. We had a good team here. Everybody contributed to winning the tournament,” said Bourguignon.
The son of a French father and a Moroccan mother was one of the most skilled player from the European-based contingent. Last season he played in the French second tier for the Clermont Sangliers and this season one league below for the Dijon Ducs. France, which held Morocco as a protectorate until 1956, has a big diaspora of people from Morocco and other North African countries.
“I played first time last summer in the Africa Cup. I really appreciated playing in that tournament and that’s why I came again for this event without hesitating a second,” the 25-year-old forward said.
“It was unbelievable to play in Morocco last year. If somebody had told me ten years ago that I’d play ice hockey in Morocco I’d have said “you’re crazy!” and when I got the invitation I first thought my friends were kidding me until I realized it was real and I went to Rabat. There’s a group of very motivated people from the President to the players.”
The second period against Ireland continued in the same direction the first frame had ended. Youssef Chadli, Charles-Hichem Balha and Yassin Ahrazem scored for Morocco, Ian Courtney had a marker for Ireland before a few players unloaded their emotions in a hard-contested game with their fists, just to later mix together for a more peaceful team photo after the game.
The end of the second period continued with four-on-four and one goal each for a 9-3 score after the second period. After exchanging three more goals in the third period Morocco won the game 11-4, got the trophy and celebrated with it and hearing their national anthem, the Cherifian Anthem, in the background.
Another player with high-level experience is captain Youssef Kabbaj from Westmound, Quebec, who played three years at the highest level of junior hockey in Canada’s QMJHL, four years of CIS college hockey and since 2016 minor league hockey in Quebec, this season for St-Cyrille Condors (LHSAAAQ).
Hakim Bouchaoui, who was born in the Swedish hockey town of Karlstad, is another player who plays amateur hockey in a top hockey country, currently for Swedish fourth-tier team Kils AIK.
“It was fun. It was hard in the beginning. We knew Ireland was going to play hard and be good,” Bouchaoui said. “But some of the guys play a lot and know the game well.”
Bouchaoui came in through his brother, who played for Morocco in the 2008 Arab Cup in Abu Dhabi. “We tried all kind of sports, football, hockey, but I loved hockey. I played first time last year in the Africa Cup. It was special since we played we played 3-on-3. It was a good experience.”
Ice hockey in Morocco is a rather young sport and the first generation of players who started as kids in Morocco is slowly moving into senior hockey. The roster included two young players developed in Morocco. One of them is Mohamed El Idrissi from Rabat.
“I started in 2005. They invited me to play for the Rabat Capitals when they started the team and I have liked playing hockey ever since then. I’m very proud to be a member of the national team and represent Morocco,” said El Idrissi, who usually plays one game a week plus practice in the Moroccan capital.
“We have played well here, won games. We have the qualities to play good hockey. My dream is to develop hockey in Morocco and find the means to play hockey and get a full-size ice rink. We need a rink and then we can move further. We don’t have a lot of means but we dream about a rink to play international ice hockey. We have two small ones but it doesn’t work to invite bigger teams who are used to play on international-size rinks.”
Mrini’s dream started in the ’80s in Quebec
The Royal Moroccan Ice Hockey Federation is a life-long dream of Khalid Mrini, who grew up in Morocco before moving to the Canadian province of Quebec. Behind the bench he had his fellow Morocco-Quebecer, Development Director Adil El Farj, and his brother Mimoun Mrini, who lives in Morocco and served as head coach of the team.
“We work a lot. Now we have more than 400 players in Morocco. We started last year our first national championship. It’s growing. It’s a lot of work but the future is bright,” said Khalid Mrini.
His dream of ice hockey in the North African country started a long time ago. He moved to Quebec as a 17-year-old to study in Canada and immediately fell in love with ice hockey when he saw a Montreal Canadiens vs. Detroit Red Wings game on TV. “In Morocco sometimes you see in the sport news the Stanley Cup or the World Championship but just a 30-second highlight. When I first time saw a full game I started following the Montreal Canadiens and travelled to games a lot in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I love this game because it’s so exciting,” he said.
In 1983 he was at the International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament in Quebec. “I saw all these flags, Canada, United States, Switzerland and so on. I told my girlfriend that one day I’d put my flag there. She started laughing. She said “it’s only I dream”. I knew it was a dream but you can’t live without dreams.
“When they opened the first ice rink in Morocco in 2004 my brother called me and told me there’s an ice rink in Rabat. I went to Morocco and we started the first hockey school. In 2006 I went to Quebec City to participate with 14 players from Morocco. I called my ex-girlfriend. I told her “I made it!”. It took me more than 20 years but I did it. I had my flag there. It was a feeling I can’t explain, to have the flag there with the Canadians, Americans, Russians.”
After starting ice hockey at the small rink in Rabat – in the meantime a second small-size rink is used for hockey in Casablanca – Morocco started to look out for international contacts. First Moroccan kids played against kids from hockey countries who were kids of diplomats in Morocco. Later they hosted a Canadian team, French teams, Spanish teams, went to Switzerland for a ten-day camp. In 2008 they participated in the first and only Arab Cup in Abu Dhabi.
“In 2010 we became IIHF member, something I’m proud of because that’s where all the big and smaller hockey countries are members. I started to speak with many presidents from other countries and look for help,” Mrini said.
“Last year we had the first Africa Cup against teams from Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. The government started believing in us and saw that it’s getting serious. Two years ago we went from being a national association to being a Royal federation. It means a lot. It means the government started to believe in us and that hockey is growing in Morocco.”
Now he has his Moroccan flag in other tournaments too including the 2017 Development Cup where Morocco for the first time played national teams from Europe.
“I’m living my dream and being here today is still a dream because you have the Moroccan flag here, you hear the national anthem with the other countries. But it’s only the beginning. I want to show the hockey world that we’re serious. Hockey in Morocco is not exotic. We’re not just for the photo gallery,” Mrini said.
“Hockey is not just the big countries like Canada, USA or Russia. We have here the coverage on the IIHF website. And last year Luc Tardif came to Morocco. When I told the government that he is the IIHF Treasurer and President of the French Ice Hockey Federation, they realized that the IIHF is really supporting us. It was like a wake-up call and they started helping us more and more,” he added.
“Inshallah we will have an ice rink”
While Morocco has passionate diaspora players who represent the country of their roots, hockey has also grown in the country itself since its start. What once began with six players when the ice rink in the Mega Mall in Rabat opened is now a sport with eight club teams. When the national championship begins later this month, they will be joined by a ninth team.
Mrini’s dream is not over yet. He knows that to develop hockey within the country and be able to play internationally with homegrown players it needs more rinks. While the federation is working on having a third small rink in Agadir, the challenge is to get the first full-size one to be able to play five-on-five and join more established ice hockey countries in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program.
“Now I’m looking to build an official ice rink in Morocco. In Rabat, or Casablanca. It’s not so important where it is but to have a big ice arena. I want to start in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III,” Mrini said.
“In the beginning it was very hard but now the government saw our international tournaments and the national championship in Morocco. I have all the plans to build an arena from the IIHF. I have everything ready. Now just the money is missing but I’m working hard for it and Inshallah [if God wills] we will have an ice rink,” he said. “Morocco deserves it.”