Miracle on Southeast Asian ice for Philippines hockey

The fog, at times, spans the length of the rink, making it difficult to see one’s teammates, let alone the puck.

While it hasn’t exactly helped the Trip Advisor reviews for the SM Skating Rink inside Mandaluyong’s SM Megamall, the blanket of mist is the expected byproduct when ice hockey is introduced into tropical environs like the Philippines.

It’s here where a championship journey started, fog and all: In the shopping malls, the only places in the country with ice sheets. It was around 1991 when the first two opened, when Filipino hockey players could strap on skates and play hockey on their own home ice a few steps away from the food court.

It took another 24 years before a national ice hockey federation was created.

Paul Sanchez was born in the Philippines in 1990, before moving to Canada as a five-year-old. That’s where he learned hockey, playing AAA in Ottawa and a few games in junior. When he relocated back to the Philippines a few years ago, playing hockey was the furthest thing from his mind.

Because, like, he didn’t think there was any.

One day his uncle was at that epicenter of hockey culture in the Philippines — the mall — and saw a sign, seeking players for Hockey Philippines, a.k.a. the national team. “At first, I didn’t really believe him. So I did some research myself, found the team on Facebook and messaged them,” said Sanchez.

The team was real, and their reality is now that of a championship caliber program. Last Thursday, Sanchez and the Filipino national team defeated Thailand, 5-4, to win gold in the first ever hockey tournament held at the Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was a remarkable achievement for a team that didn’t exist all of two years ago.

Actually, they stunned Thailand: While the Philippines was expected to medal, Thailand was the region’s preeminent hockey powerhouse, having gone undefeated against teams from Southeast Asian countries for nearly seven years.

“They were supposed to be the better team!” exclaimed the Filipinos’ manager Petronilo Tigaronita. “You can’t underestimate our players and anybody else in ice hockey in the region. Thailand could not be beaten. But we did it!”

The gold medal victory was called a “Miracle on Ice.”

A more appropriate touchstone for this team is actually “The Mighty Ducks.”

Generation Ducks

The average age of the Filipino national roster is 25. They are square in Generation Mighty Ducks, with the seminal Disney hockey film debuting in 1992. Finding an NHL game on television in the Philippines requires a tiered cable TV system and a road map. Discovering “The Mighty Ducks” was a hell of a lot easier.

“‘The Mighty Ducks’ has been an inspiration to most hockey players, especially if you’re in a tropical country like the Philippines,” forward Lenard Lancero, 22, told AFP last year. “You’ve only been watching hockey, seeing it just in the movies. But when there was ice hockey here in [the mall] it’s like a dream come true.”

Francois Gautier, the team’s alternate captain, started playing hockey because of “The Mighty Ducks” movie, which led him to Mighty Ducks of Anaheim fandom, which led him to his hockey idols. “It was the tandem of Paul Kariya and, of course the Finnish flash, Teemu Selanne, which is, by far, my all time favorite player,” he told National Teams of Ice Hockey. “I wish my backhand is as good as his, though.”

Alas, the movie could only religiously convert a handful of young Filipino athletes into hockey players. The seed was planted for the game, but only a shrub sprouted.

“When people find out I play on the national team, their first reaction is ‘there’s hockey here?’ That’s the response from about 90 percent of the people,” said Sanchez.

Yet while the hockey culture at large is nonexistent in the country, the hockey culture on the national team and the nascent Manila Ice Hockey League – a four-team rec league that’s been around for nearly a decade – is the same as you’d find in any locker room on North America. The camaraderie. The chatter. The competitive fire.

“You’re in the same hockey culture. It’s just in the Philippines,” said Sanchez.

And these players can play.

“That’s the thing that surprised me, too. It’s one thing to have hockey. But the skill that these guys have was really surprising. We’re not Canadians. We’re not, like, the biggest people. But we have agility and skill,” he said.

Sanchez and his ex-pats actually make up a smaller percentage of the roster than do the players who are native to the Philippines but never played elsewhere. “We’re about five who grew up abroad, and everyone else learned how to play the sport locally,” he said.

The captain, Steven Fuglister, played in Switzerland. Their goalies include Filipino-Swiss netminder Gianpetro Iseppi. Sanchez, a forward, and defenseman Carlo Martin Tenedero are both Filipino-Canadian.

The rest of the team hasn’t been trained overseas. It’s a collection of local talents that, somehow, found a passion and a prowess for ice hockey in a tropical nation. But like every other hockey player knows, the success or failure of a fledgling team or league comes down to three factors: Available ice, organization and cost.

Enter Chris Sy.

The Godfather

He’s called the “godfather” of hockey in the Philippines.

Sy, a businessman and restaurateur, found a love of puck while vacationing in Canada, as his son became hooked on the sport. With the Philippines already having a burgeoning if miniscule hockey scene, Sy thought the time was right to attempt the formation of a national team, with an eye towards potential Olympic participation.

 

The ice was available. When those malls closed at 9 p.m., the players would hit the rinks and practice.

The organization was put in place, with Hockey Philippines getting officially recognized by the Philippine Sports Commission and Philippine Olympic Committee.

The cost … well, the cost was tricky.

In its early days, the national team players would use their own gear and pay out of pocket for other necessities. They would scratch together money to rent ice time. But Sy managed to find sponsorships and financial support over time, and did so rather boldly: He wasn’t just selling the chance to support a national team, but a successful one.

He promised the Philippine Sports Commission a medal at the Asian Winter Games in 2017. The team won bronze, the only tropical national to medal in the event.

He upped the ante later in the year, and promised the commission a gold medal at the Southeast Asian Games.

Again, they came through.

“He just really believes in us. He was one of the people who funded out gear, found sponsors for us,” said Sanchez. “I’m really happy we were able to get him what he promised.”

And the team was happy Sanchez had a chance to play at all.

The “miracle” almost ended before it began.

Two of the team’s top players – defenseman Carlo Martin Tenedero and Sanchez, a standout forward – were suspended by the Malaysian hosts of the SEA Games because “both allegedly failed to meet the required 16-month residency requirement.”

Sanchez was crushed, but undaunted. He and Tenedero traveled with the team to the Games, hoping the decision would be reversed.

“It seemed like they were trying to make rules so we wouldn’t be eligible,” he said.

The rule stated they had to have lived for 16 months on their nation in order to play for the team. Sanchez barely met that standard, but met it. The bigger issue: IIHF rules state players have to have played in the country for two full seasons. But Sanchez said this was an unfortunate technicality: The IIHF didn’t accredit the Philippines until a year ago.

He and Tenedero were ruled eligible. Sanchez scored twice in the first 14 minutes of the gold medal game against Thailand, helping his team to a 3-0 lead and an eventual 5-4 championship win.

“You know the Malaysian officials were just trying to find a way to prevent us from playing,” said Sanchez. “In the end, our officials appealed, we won, and honestly that’s one of the things that made this victory so much sweeter.”

The Aftermath

It may have been a game in Southeast Asia, but the closing scene was universal: The seconds ticking down to zero, goalie Gianpeitro Iseppi getting bum rushed and mobbed by his teammates, gold medals being placed around necks and the ice being filled with jubilant teammates and loved ones.

Winning the first gold medal in the first hockey tournament at the Southeast Asian Games turned them into minor celebrities. The win made front page news. They players ended up doing television appearances to talk about it. Their games drew in fans that had never watched championship hockey before, with games getting thousands of streams on the federation Facebook page.

“I had people saying they had never watched a hockey game before and they were shaking the entire time,” said Sanchez.

“Now is the perfect time to grow the sport.”

So how do they grow it?

“It’s the exposure,” said Sanchez. “We have four rinks now, and they’re building a few more. It’s really just getting people to know there is hockey.”

Which means the national team needs to keep striving to compete internationally, creating interest that will no doubt be bolstered by having the next two Winter Olympics in South Korea and China.

Sanchez believes Filipinos won’t just love the action in the sport, but will excel at it. “They’re agile. They like tough sports. It’s the perfect time to capitalize on this little bump in popularity,” he said.

“Just like everywhere else in the world, we’re very passionate about hockey.”

Even if their rinks can be a little foggier.

Find more about the team on Facebook. Images via their Instagram.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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