Dropping the Puck in Asia

Is Asia hockey’s next frontier? As the NHL begins to market the sport in China, it seems that the Philippines and India could be the next market for the NHL. 

Just recently, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman decided that the league’s players would not play in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Most players were upset; some, including Washington Capitals star winger Alex Ovechkin, said they would go regardless of what the league said. The NHL Player’s Association released a statement regarding the uninformed decision, which said, “Any sort of inconvenience the Olympics may cause to next season’s schedule is a small price to pay compared to the opportunity to showcase our game and our greatest players on this enormous international stage.” ​

However, just a few days before the decision, the NHL announced that the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings will play two preseason games in China next season. Presented by O.R.G. Packaging, the NHL China Games will “give both current and potential new fans in Shanghai and Beijing a chance to watch some of the best hockey players in the world,” said Mathieu Schneider, an official with the player’s association.

As the NHL looks to market their sport in China, a country with over one billion people, what can be said for East Asian countries like the Philippines or South Asian countries like India? Will hockey ever be at the forefront of major competition in these nations? Probably not in the near future. But does it have a place in these countries, as well as the rest of Asia? Absolutely.

Is China the future of hockey?

When Mark Simon was living in Canada at age 27, he was bored with being a banker and moved to Beijing. He only planned on staying for one year, but he’s been living in China for more than a decade. Seeing how badly youth hockey was coached, structured and organized, Simon wanted to stay and fix it. As he continues to teach and promote the game, Simon said in a phone interview that the infrastructure of hockey in China is, well, nonexistent. In the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), China’s men’s team is ranked 37th out of 50 teams, and countries ranked higher include Australia, Korea, Japan and Kazakhstan. Their women’s team is ranked at 16th.

“When you look at where they’re ranked and how much money and resources they have, it’s pretty embarrassing that that kind of a country is ranked as low as they are,” said Simon. “It just shows there’s been a misappropriation of resources, to be as politically correct as possible.”

Simon is also a consultant with the Beijing Kunlun Red Stars, a team in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). However, according to an article from NPR, the Red Stars broke a new record for lowest attendance at a single game — 550 people.

Simon believes there are a few solutions to this problem, the biggest of which is to get buy-in from the Chinese Ice Hockey Association (CIHA). From there, getting programs implemented through the school system and getting people educated about the sport is the next step. Beginning learn-to-skate programs started and using foreign coaches to teach the game will be a start, but for the national teams that will be competing on the international stage today, Simon knows it’s too late.

To get kids playing hockey at a young age, Simon feels that learn-to-skate programs should focus on group learning with visual, auditory and tactile learning, but kids need to feel like they’re having fun in the learning process. The problem with their programs today is that this hasn’t happened. Players on national teams are set in their ways, and there’s no coming back from that.

“One thing they try to do is to hire foreign coaches to work magic with their players. The damage is done, though. You do that with a group of national team guys who’ve grown up for 15 or 20 years in a shit system, and then you can put Scotty Bowman there, and it won’t matter.”

Simon believes that even by the 2022 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese hockey team won’t be anywhere near competitive. Simon “hopes to hell” they don’t play any of the teams made up of mostly NHL players.

Setting the trend

In 1991, SM Prime Holdings, a shopping mall and retail operator in the Philippines, opened rinks at their SM Megamall in Mandaluyong and the SM Southmall in Las Pinas. Although SM had initiated programs to learn about hockey, they were taught by figure skating coaches who had agreed to teach the sport under strict conditions. In 2006, SM Mall of Asia opened the first Olympic sized rink, and interest began to grow. More people were attending weekly pickup games, and according to Francois Gautier, the general manager of Hockey Philippines, that’s when he and his friends decided to make Hockey Philippines an official league.

“About two years into [the pickup games], a few of us decided to form the league,” said Gautier. “A few meetings here and there, and the Manilla Adult Ice Hockey League was created. This time around, we had coaches that actually knew what they were doing.”

Once the league began to grow, Gautier says they began to talk about forming a team to become a part of the IIHF. According to the IIHF website, the Philippines have been members since May of 2016. With only four indoor rinks and just over 130 players, both male and female, hockey in the Philippines still has a long way to go to become a major sport.

“China is definitely ahead of us,” Gautier explains, “but I’m confident that with the projects we have planned, hockey will gain popularity. Obviously it’s our aim to be a major sport, but in reality, if we can even just be a sport of minor popularity, it would be a big achievement.”

Sports in the Philippines fluctuate based on major Filipino athletes and their successes. Basketball and boxing are popular, but Gautier says they can be forgotten if there isn’t a world champion around. When professional pool player Efren Reyes won a world championship in 2009, billiards became the number one sport in the country, and people were opening pool halls left and right. While Gautier hopes hockey will rise to this level someday, his first goal is to establish a consistent popularity that will last over time.

To establish and maintain popularity, there has to be ice to play on. The tropical climate of the Philippines makes this a tough issue to combat, but Gautier hopes to bring back inline hockey and floorball, a variation of hockey. This would make it easier for schools to play in their gymnasiums, rather than having to drive to a rink or put in their own. Putting in the learn-to-play and grass-roots programs using floorball, inline hockey and ice hockey is necessary for development; however, Gautier thinks looking to a larger goal can be beneficial for younger players.

“I think developing what’s at the end is equally important in order to have those grass-rooters to look up to and aim for,” said Gautier. “Let’s face it, our program won’t be producing any NHL-caliber players, but we do intend to get there eventually. It will be a dream kids can aim for.”

Just like in China, many people don’t know hockey is played in the Philippines. Although it’s a small operation with friends of friends playing, they’re looking to change that. They don’t want to force people to love the sport, but rather learn to love it through producing good programs. As Gautier says, “That’s the beauty of our sport — it not only teaches you how to play hockey, but about being a part of a team and a community.”

Hockey in the Himalayas

Ice hockey might be the last thing we associate with India; however, it’s been continuously growing since 2009. With the creation of the national team and the formation of the Ice Hockey Association of India, it’s beginning to become a staple in the diets of Indian youth. According to their website, ice hockey “is one of the main winter sports played by almost every child and teenager including women” in the Himalayan regions of India.

Although ice hockey may be rising, India is known for field hockey rather than ice hockey. According to an article published by ieSports, Adam Sherlip, the head coach of India’s national ice hockey team and a native of Long Island, New York, says people barely know ice hockey is played in India.

“When you mention hockey in India, they think it is field hockey,” said Sherlip. “When you say ‘ice hockey’, most people are not aware that it is played here.”

According to the IIHF website, India has been an official member of the IIHF since April 1989. With just over 300 female players and about 360 male players, India has not obtained an IIHF ranking. However, on the Ice Hockey Association of India’s website, Harjinder Singh, the league’s general secretary, says, “A few wins and we hope government and Indian sports enthusiasts will be taking note of this sport. What this sport needs is the attention of investors and it would be as popular in India as the NHL is in North America.”

The national ice hockey teams in India receive no government funding, and essentially have no infrastructure; all of their expenses are paid for out of their own pockets and from donations made by the Indian public. The lack of funding is two-fold: sport enthusiasts are glued to the cricket scene of India, and this causes a lack of recognition and funding of Indian ice hockey.

Both Simon and Gautier agree that starting kids at a young age is essential, and the Ice Hockey Association of India has implemented learn-to-play programs. The problem, however, is that there’s a limited window of ice time. Because there’s only two to three months of ice time in the Himalayan region, the programs are extremely limited. As Sherlip says in an article with The National Teams of Ice Hockey, teaching the game wouldn’t be as hard if there were sound learn-to-play programs implemented in the region.

“I’ve had to teach/re-teach the basic concepts of the game, especially when I first started coaching the team,” said Sherlip. “At that time, there was really very little understanding of how the game is typically played, as there was less access to see games, and less technical instruction received at that time.”

Along with this issue is the problem of language. For many players, Sherlip says, English is a third language. It’s a second language for a few, but it can be difficult to convey ideas, especially when he talks fast.

On March 21, 2012, India won its first international ice hockey game. Just three years later, on October 9, 2015, India’s national team traveled to Brampton, Ontario, Canada, to face the ECHL’s Brampton Beast in a preseason game. After the first five minutes, the Beast were up 5-0, which prompted a stop in the game to create evenly-matched teams. For the first time ever, India’s ice hockey players were playing alongside professional hockey players. This was a major stepping stone in the right direction for Indian ice hockey, and these kinds of stories give kids in India something to look forward to within the game of hockey.

With the donations and infrastructure that the players and coaches have created for themselves, they have truly worked from the ground up to begin ice hockey in India. As they get more investments from public and private entities, and also get youth involved earlier in the learning process, there’s every possibility that the NHL will turn to India as its next market.

Asia will someday see ice hockey as a major sport. It might not be today, tomorrow or even a year from now, but as the NHL looks for new places to promote the game, people will take notice and become much more interested. It has to start with youth programs and getting the parents of these kids watching hockey on TV. If parents understand the game, they will be more inclined to let their children try it out. It might not be a sport everyone can play, but it’s certainly one every kid should get a chance to try and experience. If this can happen in countries like China, the Philippines and India, hockey may find a new home in Asia.

Header photo courtesy of Mark Simon.

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