Ng Lap Fung is not a loud hockey fan. But he is a dedicated one. Early on Tuesday morning, the 16-year-old woke up and walked to the bus stop near his Hong Kong home with his mother and 15-year-old brother. Together, they went to the Kowloon Bay Megabox, a giant Hong Kong shopping mall, and rode elevators to the 10th floor. They stepped out to a view of a rink framed by a wall of windows looking over the skyline behind Kowloon Bay. The real spectacle, though, was on the ice, where 14 countries and cities are battling this week in the biggest hockey tournament in Asia.
Fung is an accidental hockey fan. He strapped on skates for the first time last summer, drawn to the ice by the easy elegance he saw in others circling the mall rink. “I think it’s very handsome.”
Now he’s hooked. He is here once or twice a week skating, and he’s taken a new interest in hockey; last month, he got his first pair of skates.
So when he got a chance to watch hockey live, he took it, arriving at the rink by 8 a.m. on a holiday to sit with his family and watch, in a kind of quiet awe, the raucous spectacle of players from 14 countries trading slap shots as Thunderstruck blares over signs for Molson Canadian, one of the tournament’s official beer sponsors.
Over the course of two weeks, 103 teams of men, women and children meet on this single sheet of ice, changing in indoor tents erected because the space around the rink is dedicated to a food court. On some days, the first puck drops at 6 a.m. and the last at 1:40 a.m. the next morning. Together, they are 1,600 players and an even bigger cast of family and fans, drawn from Abu Dhabi to Kazakhstan to Thailand, in a competition that’s as much a party as it is a celebration of hockey’s tiny, but growing, presence on the fringe of Asian sport.
Among them are the Qatar teen skipping school to be here, the group of cheering Filipina girls who picked up sticks after watching The Mighty Ducks, and the Tokyo workers breathing a sigh of relief that they can, for once, take to the ice at a reasonable hour of the day, not pushed to the wee hours by figure skaters. Rumours fly that the Abu Dhabi team is paying for a European ringer, and that an NHL player or two might even make an appearance.
On this particular morning, the highlight is a matchup between the Philippines and Qatar, whose team has travelled abroad for the first time to play hockey. Fifteen-year-old Ali Almaiuzaa is here, along with his two brothers. They first saw a sheet of ice in a mall, tried skating and then experimented with hockey. “Like a new hobby or something,” Almaiuzaa says. “We used to go to the mall and skate every day.” He has ducked out of school for the week to be in Hong Kong.
But his team can’t get past the Filipinos, who win 3-1, much to the delight of the women cheering in the stands. They are players, too, waiting for their turn to play later in the day.
Kristina Belen, 17, started as a figure skater. Then some relatives from Vancouver came to Manila and gave her a set of hockey skates. “I tried them on, and I liked it,” she says.
She had another reason to play, too: a love for The Mighty Ducks movie which, though it came out a half-decade before she was born, “inspires me. It’s like you can start from the bottom and you just have to do your best,” she says.
Still, it’s a bit intimidating sitting here and watching teams bash around pucks and each other. It’s “scary as hell,” says Rina Concepcion, who is 15. “When you see them out there you are just like – that’s going to be me later.”
Twenty years ago, when this tournament first started, some 80 per cent of those lacing up were ex-pat Canadians, beating back homesickness with skates and sticks (though it was a man from St. Louis, Mo., who actually planned the first tournament). Today, half of those at the tournament are locals drawn to rinks popping up in places where skating can provide a cool respite from sweltering heat, and the kind of rich-kid status that places it among the ranks of rugby and tennis.
A dozen years ago, China had 25 rinks. It now has 80 in operation, and another 200 either planned or already in construction. This past year, for the first time, NHL games were carried by an online sports streaming service of CCTV, the main Chinese state-owned television network.
In Qatar, a dozen teams play in three divisions. In Tokyo, 48 teams brave sometimes inhuman schedules. “Our practice is from 2 a.m. until 4,” says Hiro Tanaka. He is 31 and phlegmatic about his predicament. Only a few rinks even allow hockey, and the players have to wait until the figure skaters have gone to bed. “It’s really normal in Japan,” he says.
In Hong Kong, meanwhile, some 800 kids play in youth leagues. “Honestly with the kids, the better kids are the locals, not the expats,” says John Laroche, who chairs the Hong Kong Typhoons Hockey Club, which runs local hockey leagues.
That’s not to say hockey has much of a profile here, even in a city where some 300,000 people hold Canadian passports – some 4 per cent of the population. Across Asia, the English Premier League, Major League Baseball and the NBA grab viewers. Hockey is all but impossible to find on local television, and there are no local heroes – no Yao Mings – to inspire a younger generation’s dreams. Even talented youth aren’t likely to pursue hockey much beyond recreation. Chinese parents tend to see a career in bodychecking as less worthy of pursuit than medicine or law.
Still, the 2018 Olympics in Seoul will train new attention on winter sports, while Beijing is bidding for the 2022 games as well. And Laroche is optimistic that some day, more Asian players will crack into the big leagues. Korean-born Jim Paek and Richard Park, along with Japanese-born Yutaka Fukufuji have all played in the NHL. There have been no Chinese players, though four Hong Kong-born players are now at North American colleges and hockey academies.
“One of those kids will play Canadian juniors for sure,” Laroche says. “Will he make it? I’d like to think yes. But one step at a time.”