The Kid From Qatar

Youth Goalie Discovers Hockey in the Desert

It was 112 degrees when we landed at Hamad International Airport last August, but with the humidity, it felt a lot more like 122. Exiting the plane, it was almost impossible to breathe. I thought that the heat was coming up from the tarmac, but after going through customs and leaving the airport, it felt the same way outside.

Welcome to Qatar.

For the past year, my family and I have been living in the capital city of Doha, where my dad is part of a team building the largest port in the world.

From the people to the language to the culture, almost everything in Qatar is different than what I’m used to in Westfield, N.J. Back in my old neighborhood, everyone and everything was pretty much the same. Here, I see something new nearly every day.

The way that people dress is one of the most noticeable differences. Here in Qatar, almost 70 percent of the population practices Islam. Muslim women must wear an abaya, which is a dress that looks like a black robe, and a hijab, which is a veil that covers the head. Some women also cover their faces, but it’s not required.

Men aren’t restricted in the same way, but many wear a dashi, which is a white tailored robe, and a fob, a white head scarf held in place by a wrapped, black rope called a gutra.

Living and playing hockey in Qatar has given Zack Peterson a greater appreciation for the game and other cultures.Living and playing hockey in Qatar has given Zack Peterson a greater appreciation for the game and other cultures.

When I first arrived, I thought these outfits were strange to see. And I definitely didn’t understand how anyone could play sports wearing those clothes.

For my first few months in the Middle East, I was nervous to talk to the people who wore robes. After all, they looked so much different than me. But once I got to know them, I learned that they weren’t so different after all.

When I first arrived, it was pretty surprising to learn that there are plenty of restaurants here that we’re used to in America. Popular chains like IHOP, Pizza Hut and P.F. Chang’s are just around the corner from where I play hockey.

They even have some of the same junk food that we have, like Oreos and Coca Cola, even if the packaging is different. Those familiar labels look pretty strange when they’re written in Arabic.

Occasionally, American food has a slightly different taste from what I’m used to. For some reason, Coke seems more carbonated. Plus, everything is way more expensive. You can find normal potato chips in the aisles of the grocery stores for $10. Most of the time, it’s not worth it.

A shortage of goaltenders in Qatar creates additional opportunities for Zack Peterson to get between the pipes.A shortage of goaltenders in Qatar creates additional opportunities for Zack Peterson to get between the pipes.

Though my mom mostly cooks for our family at home, we still go out to eat sometimes, and that’s when I mostly experience Qatari food. I’m a pretty picky eater, so it can be hard for me to find local cuisine that I’ll enjoy. One meal I like is shawarma, which pretty much tastes like a chicken taco.

Since Qatar stays hot all year, I get out and enjoy the pool in my compound as much as possible. When we get tired of swimming, we like to ride ATVs out in the sand dunes located south of where we live.
A lot of Qatari locals go out to the sand dunes to camp during the weekends. Friday is prayer day, so they’ll head to the mosque and then leave for the dunes after.

Since my school is mostly attended by Americans and other international kids here for their parents’ work, I don’t get to meet a lot of local people my age. Instead, I usually hang out with kids who live in my same compound. I have two friends, one who is Australian and another who is British. Just spending time with them has been a cultural adjustment. We argue about different words, and which country has the superior football.

Qatar is the self-proclaimed sports capital of the Middle East. The ice rink is located inside a mall; although malls here are not like what we’re used to in America. This mall, which is called the Villagio, is filled with upscale shops and is painted to look like Venice. There’s even a canal running through it with motorized gondolas.

The rink is located near the food court so there are always people eating and talking nearby. There is netting around the rink, but the league has a rule against taking slap shots from the blue line. There are no benches or penalty boxes so any player who gets a penalty sits in the bleachers.

I am a 14-year-old goalie who has been playing hockey for more than five years, and no matter where I’ve played, one thing usually remains the same. Rinks are always cold, no matter what the weather is like outside. One of the most enduring memories I have of playing hockey is seeing the parents constantly bundled up in the stands.


"The heat also affects the ice. It’s much softer so the skaters get
stuck if their edges are too sharp.”


But at my new rink, it’s always hot. When I get on the ice, I’m already sweating just from hauling my equipment. On the ice, my helmet band is always soaking wet with sweat. I even have to wring it out throughout the game.

The heat also affects the ice. It’s much softer so the skaters get stuck if their edges are too sharp. As a goaltender, I have to remember to pick my feet up and take steps. Otherwise, I can’t get across the net quickly enough to make any saves.

Since hockey isn’t as popular in Qatar as it is in the United States, there aren’t many players, and even fewer goaltenders. I guess most people over here don’t want to see pucks flying at their faces. At my level, there are two goalies: Mohammed and me. Before I got here, they would even have to occasionally put pads on a skater and stick him in goal.

Besides tournaments, during which we play teams from places like Saudi Arabia and Dubai, we don’t really have official team rosters. There are only two teams and a limited number of players, so games are more like scrimmages. Oftentimes, we switch up the groups just to keep things interesting.

Proudly sporting her son’s number on the back of her jersey, Susan Kowalenko takes a break from the Qatar heat with her husband, Marlin Peterson, to support Zack as he hits the ice with his team.Proudly sporting her son’s number on the back of her jersey, Susan Kowalenko takes a break from the Qatar heat with her husband, Marlin Peterson, to support Zack as he hits the ice with his team.

Of course, some things have remained the same. Even here in Qatar, ice hockey is dominated by North Americans and Europeans. Where I live, I am surrounded by players who are here for the same reasons as me and the make up of the league is very diverse. We have more than 20 nationalities represented in the Qatar Raiders hockey program, including kids from places like Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.

Each of us wears a small flag on the front of our jersey to identify where we came from. I’m one of three players from the United States.

Everyone on the team speaks English in some capacity, but some of us are more fluent than others. When it comes to hockey, we all speak the same language on the ice.

The tournaments are my favorite part of playing hockey here. We get to fly to interesting and new places that I would probably never get to visit if I wasn’t playing hockey.

At our last tournament, the team from Saudi Arabia dominated everybody. Our game against them was my favorite because even though we lost, 5-1, I felt like I was being challenged, which helps me grow as a player.

In some countries, it’s easy to tell that hockey is still in its fledgling stages. At one tournament in Dubai, we played in a rink with no locker rooms. We had to change in a ballroom that we had to share with other teams.

Still, the quality of play in these countries wasn’t lacking at all. Most people probably wouldn’t realize it, but there are some really good teams playing hockey in the Middle East. And each year, the sport grows even more.

At the Desert Classic Tournament, my team made it to the championship round, where we lost to Dubai in the shootout. I felt bad that we didn’t get the gold but  the coaches were thrilled. Apparently, they had never gotten that far in a tournament before.

The most interesting part about that game was the award ceremony afterwards. The sheik, who was wearing sandals, came onto the ice to present the medals. Afterwards, we had our picture taken with the sheik with our silver medals around our necks. I have to say it was a little weird. Definitely not something that happens in New Jersey.

When I moved here, my first thought was, “Why?” I didn’t know where Qatar was and I definitely didn’t want to leave my friends and the rest of my family.

Now, with just a year left before I head back to America and resume my hockey career there, I am grateful to experience a new culture and see  a new side of hockey that I hadn’t ever considered before. It’s strange to imagine that people living in the desert halfway around the world might play a sport that revolves around ice, but I know now that hockey is a universal language.


Photos by Karolina Bak.


Qatar Facts

• As of July 2015, the population of Qatar is 2,194,817. That’s roughly the same as the population of New Mexico (2,086,000).
• The population of Qatar is almost 70 percent Muslim.
Qatar is 4,468 square miles. The closest U.S. states in size are Connecticut (5,543 square miles) and Delaware (2,488 square miles). Qatar would be the third smallest state in the United States.
• Qatar has the largest single reservoir of natural gas in the world.
• In 2005, Qatar’s first written constitution was enacted.
• The capital of Qatar is Doha. Texas A&M, Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon all have campuses in Doha.
• Qatar has won four Olympic medals in its history. All of the medals were bronze and from the Summer Olympics. Qatar has never competed in the Winter Olympics.
Soccer is the most popular sport.
• Weather: Even in the winter, low temperatures in Qatar still don’t dip much lower than 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures in Qatar can reach up to an average of 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot enough to fry an egg outside!



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