ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — When Fatima Al Ali first started playing hockey in the United Arab Emirates, she skated with young children half her size.
"They were looking up at me like, 'What is she doing here?'" she said.
On Wednesday, she was halfway around the world skating with the NHL's Washington Capitals, and they knew exactly what she was doing there. Capitals great Peter Bondra was impressed by Al Ali's advanced stickhandling moves during a visit to Abu Dhabi, and the team flew her to the United States to meet her favorite player, Alex Ovechkin, during the league's "Hockey is for Everyone" month.
The 27-year-old Al Ali only began playing hockey six years ago after falling in love with the sport as the official photographer for the men's national team, and now she's among the best players on the women's team in the United Arab Emirates. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, the UAE has only 82 adult women's players among its 802 skaters and just nine rinks in the country of almost 6 million where the average winter temperature is about 79 degrees.
"Hockey is getting more and more popular, and Fatima is one of the key factors to this success," said Rasti Pavlikovsky, who runs the hockey camp where Bondra saw Al Ali in November. "She loves the sport, she is at the rink every day, not just skating and training, but also helping out to run the practices and games, she is also a great referee at international level."
Al Ali recently got punched in the face while breaking up a fight as a referee but finished the game. She's a hockey player, all right, with skills that could probably earn her a spot on women's club team in North America.
She has had a busy week.
After visiting the National Mall and seeing sights around the nation's capital Monday with her brother, Mohammed, Al Ali took in the Wizards' overtime thriller against LeBron James and the NBA-champion Cleveland Cavaliers at night and visited the UAE embassy and met ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba on Tuesday. Overwhelmed by her first trip to Washington, she cried in the Capitals' locker room Tuesday night as she met players after their game.
She found some comfort on the ice with them Wednesday. As cameras from about a dozen media outlets documented her every stride, Al Ali talked about herself, the sport in the Middle East and stick curves and different moves.
"I was so nervous going on the ice, but once we started talking it just calmed down," she said. "We're just talking about hockey, something we all share and something we all love."
On Thursday, she did the ceremonial puck drop at the Capitals-Red Wings game.
Like her country, her hockey skills are still a work in progress, but Capitals coach Barry Trotz was impressed.
"You think a lady playing hockey in (the United Arab Emirates) it doesn't sort of mix, but it's great," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "To see what she's doing is fantastic. She's going to be a real role model, and I think it's a good symbol."
Al Ali got a signed stick from Ovechkin to commemorate her visit. Ovechkin also hopes she takes home more motivation to play and spread the sport.
"It's good for the game, it's good for me, it's good for hockey," Ovechkin said. "I told her I hope she's going to bring more interest in the game to her country and maybe it's going to be a new league because she's got to meet some people out here."
Al Ali is not from one of the countries targeted by President Donald Trump's executive order barring travelers from seven Muslim majority nations from entering the U.S. At the Capitals' suburban Washington practice facility she skated around the rink wearing a hijab and enjoying what she called the best thing to happen to her in her life.
"I'm not here for politics," Al Ali said. "I'm just here for sports and hockey."
During his trip to Abu Dhabi, Bondra met with UAE hockey officials and coached an under-18 practice. He said hockey is on the way in a very nontraditional market.
"Doing a little hockey clinic, there was various stage of the level of game," Bondra said. "There was some good skaters — you could tell that they've been skating for maybe two years more or there was some kids just starting. The hockey's young there and it's growing."
Al Ali is at the forefront of that on the women's side, and Pavlikovsky said nine or 10 more players from her team want to participate in their next camp run by former NHL and European players. That's the impact she hopes to have.
"That's my goal," Al Ali said. "Everything I started doing in my life I hope it inspires other people to do something and break the barrier in their culture, whatever they're doing."
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno