Tuesday, April 13, 2010

IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia, Part 1: Love

Believe it or not, there are credible Asian hockey powers. Japan, South Korea, and China- while not ‘good’ at hockey by Canadian standards- have been producing capable homegrown hockey players for nearly a century. They play in or about Division I of the IIHF rankings, in the same category as the chilly but unspecialized European countries. They run, between them, the ALH- Asia League Ice Hockey- a small professional league comprised mostly of Asian players which- again, while not NHL/KHL caliber- is entertaining enough that people will pay to watch it. There’s legitimately good hockey being played west of Vancouver.

That hockey, however, is not being played at the Challege Cup of Asia. The teams here do not represent a confluence of Asian hockey powers. In fact, they don’t represent a confluence of any kind of powers. This is most definitely an assembly of the marginal: five countries, two special administrative regions, a city-state and an ongoing territorial dispute that are famous- if they’re famous at all- for gambling, sex tourism, noodles, fermented mare’s milk, small plastic toys of dubious quality, oil, and irrationally melodramatic architectural projects. And yet here they are, brought together one rainy week in Taipei by the coincidental fact that they’ve all, quite unexpectedly and perhaps accidentally, grown ice hockey teams.

This is the final day of the tournament, four games that will determine the final rankings. Singapore has already locked up ninth place with a 0-2-2 record and a devastating 0-11 loss to Thailand that proved to be the round robin’s most decisive, merciless beat-down. They, presumably, have already returned to their shimmery metropolis on their luxuriously appointed jets, consoled with complimentary Slings and the knowledge that they still have the most absurd jersey design in Asia (N.B: The Singapore jersey features a stone merlion superimposed over a night-time cityscape. These features are only recognizable as such within about three feet of the image.)

First up, at high noon, vying for 7th place, we have:

KUWAIT vs. MACAU

I am, of course, late.

I wanted to be on time. I tried to be on time. But it is not my custom to be awake at noon on a weekend, and today, as yesterday, as the night before, I am skittering up to the scorer’s bench at very nearly the last acceptable second. The girl next to me, the one who writes the game sheet and identifies the penalties via a notebook full of hand-drawn illustrations, says nothing, but slides her chair over and pushes the microphone in my direction. I’m not sure if they’re happy to have me around, the coterie of other women who comprise the off-ice officialdom, but they’re very palpably happy not to have to read the announcements themselves. So I scramble for a pen and crane my neck to identify the linesman at the far end and pick up the big black mic and then I hear my own voice, grown large and resonant but still depressingly, painfully American-accented, raining down from above.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the 2010 Challenge Cup of Asia game between Kuwait and Macau.”

That is, in essence, my job. Some provision of the IIHF regulations governing the tournament specifies English-language announcements of major game events: goals, penalties, time outs, final score. It is nothing so colorful as play-by-play. I am the audio game sheet. But it gets me marginally more into the action and provides a cover story for hanging around games like this one, which no discerning hockey fan would deign to admit an interest in. Plus I get a sporty IIHF windbreaker and a Korean Hockey Association tack-pin and a complimentary lunch box dinner and the opportunity to watch the referee supervisor spaz out in a manner not entirely in keeping with the stereotypical Japanese national character when a call isn’t as it should be.

Across the ice, Kuwait is gearing up for the game. Kuwait is the only team in the tournament I’ll never get to talk to (a representative of), which is a shame, because they have the most surreal reputation in the building. Coming on the international hockey scene with a 44-1 loss to Japan in the 1999 Winter Asian Games (they were outshot 136-3), they have since played in less than a dozen international matches. Their core of their team, since the beginning, has been the Al-Ajmi brothers, a quintet who between them serve as the team’s management, coach, and core forward lines- and one of whom scored that single goal against Japan. At this tournament, they have been noted primarily for their ridiculous staff-to-player ratio: at least 7 coaches and trainers at every game opening their doors, adjusting their equipment, and sometimes just fanning them with towels as they sit back after a particularly arduous shift. Standing on the back bench in a dark suit, they have an Eastern European who gives off a faint suggestion of Czech-ity, but upon questioning claims not to know the team very well and never to have been to Kuwait. He joined them for the three-week training stint they spent in Bangkok prior to the tournament, after which one of the Al-Ajmi’s proudly told his national media that they expected to take the championship. This was, to say the least, unrealistic. But this game, they can probably win. The Kuwaitis are not especially talented hockey players- their sticks seem to have an adversarial relationship to the puck, it looks rather like they’re trying to squish it, cockroach-fashion- but they’ve invested in training, and they’re fairly well-coordinated. They have a pleasing team-ness to them that elevates them slightly but emphatically over other opponents of modest skill.

Macau (N.B: Macau is an island city located on the south coast of China, near Hong Kong. A former Portuguese colony, it was handed back to China in 1999, but retains much of its independent identity and governance as a Special Administrative Region of the PRC. Like Hong Kong, its sports federation predates its transfer to Chinese control, so it is considered an independent member of the IIHF), on the other hand, is the plucky underdog of the tournament. Forget underdog, actually, Macau isn’t just an underdog, Macau is a small, fluffy puppy with big mournful eyes shivering in a puddle under the train tracks in the rain at three in the morning. Their team is half the size of Kuwait’s, barely the regulation number of guys, gleaned from the 20-some adult male players in their city. They have no regular league and no particular organization, no substantive training or experience in the game. In Macau, ice hockey is late-night shinny on a half-size mall rink, and the occasional trip to Hong Kong for game experience. Nevertheless, for six years, this tiny group of die-hard hockey players has been suiting up for international competitions as the Macau (Quasi-National) Ice Hockey Team.

Normally, there wouldn’t be any doubt about the outcome of the game. Kuwait is better equipped, better trained, better funded, and more experienced. But Macau’s had a good tournament, by Macau standards. They beat out Singapore on goal differential, and in the round robin managed to hold the Kuwaitis to a 3-3 tie. So while the odds are long, there’s a sliver of drama here: this game could turn out to be the greatest achievement in Macau ice hockey history.

Unfortunately, if such was to happen, there aren’t many people here to witness it, and those who are hanging around don’t seem particularly invested. At puck drop, most of the people in the building are officials or administrators- for the IIHF, for the local organizing committee, for the respective national teams. The spectators consist of a worried-looking Kuwaiti with a broken leg in a deep conversation with Yu Kai-Wen, a Chinese Taipei player of considerable talent, a Taiwanese family apparently indifferent to the game, a cameraman for Al-Watan TV, a small group of genial Macau supporters, and a grinning old man in an aggressively traditional hat who seems to be some kind of advisor to the Mongolian contingent. There are perhaps forty people here who aren’t playing, and my enlarged voice rings out awkward and lonesome in the quiet.

If, by some chance, perhaps in a bar over a few beers by a recent acquaintance of charming manners but uncertain intention, you are ever asked about the distinguishing characteristics of Arabian Gulf hockey, and being a little drunk you cannot precisely recall in any great detail any particular Arab hockey players nor recent Arab Cup games, just say this: “Those dudes love slapshots.” Because, based on my limited observations over the course of five games, they do. I have no idea why, whether it comes from a common training history or a shared love of golf or the peculiarities of athletic fiqh, but both Kuwait and the UAE have a passion for rocking big, loose slapshots from just inside the offensive blueline. In Kuwait’s case, they’re generally neither hard nor accurate, more like overenthusiastic dump-ins than proper shots.

They are, however, getting shots. Macau isn’t, because Macau can’t get out of their own end. This tournament provides ample evidence for the hypothesis that offense is innate, but defense is learned. Even the bad teams here have some players with a streak of offensive potential. Give them a breakaway opportunity, let them get some time in the o-zone, and it looks as if Macau has some guys who could score a few goals (and in previous games, they have) But their defense, like most of the defense on most of the low-end teams, is ridiculously confused. They can’t make a first pass, rarely even a neat clear. For minutes on end, the puck doesn’t even hit the neutral zone, and the only exercise the Kuwaiti netminder is getting is raising his glove for icings. Defense is learned, from opponents, from coaches, from the high-strung pressure of meaningful games. You can be born with a good shot and you can be born fast, but ain’t hardly nobody born knowing how to cover a 2 on 1. Or, apparently, how to flip the puck up the boards just so.

At about 13 in the first, the Macau goalie fails to cleave to his near post and Kuwait #10 whacks one through at a steep angle. It’s not a beautiful goal, it’s not even a particularly skilled goal. It’s the goal you get from nearly thirteen continuous minutes of offensive zone possession.

At the intermission, Kevin Yu shows me a Kuwaiti jersey he got from his new friend. It has a massive BMW logo square in the middle of the chest. The man told him, he says, that if he played hockey in Kuwait, he would be provided a house, a car, and $3000 per month in salary. I’m not sure if this is an offer or just a hypothetical, but either way the point is clear: Kevin was born in the wrong shitty hockey country.

In the second, a Macanese player takes a hit badly, goes down hard, gets up wobbly, goes down again, and finally gets carried out on that yellow board, head immobilized. Poor Macau. The CCOA is a contact tournament between mostly non-contact teams, so it’s rough on everyone, but it’s turned out particularly rough on them. They’ve been taking injuries the way Mongolia takes penalties- which is to say, two or three a period. Most of them have been minor, the kind that can be played through, but some have been more serious. One of their players broke an ankle against Hong Kong, I know for sure, and I’ve seen three or four who got helped off and didn’t return in previous games. Now this. It’s been a war of attrition for them, and they’re still down 1-0, heading into the third.

In the movie version of this story, Macau makes a stirring comeback, ekes out a goal in the last minute, and sends it to overtime, wherein one of them catches the Kuwaiti goalie flat on his back after a particularly melodramatic save and roofs it for the win, and everybody collapses in a big ‘ol pile of hug. In real life, however, Macau gets fucked. Depleted roster and a long shot to begin with, it’s the officiating that kills them in the end: a couple of icings that weren’t really icings, a succession of sketchy tripping penalties, and an inexplicable too many men call when they pull their goalie in the final minutes that sets the referee supervisor shrieking from the stands. Kuwait gets a final, easy PP marker, and the anticipated outcome is realized. The Kuwaitis are not especially thrilled (they had hoped for first, after all), the Macanese are in an ineffectual rage, and the crowd is uniformly unenthusiastic about the whole thing. I hope, at least, that someone in Jahrah is dancing in front of their television.

So… why? That’s the big question, right? That’s the elephant at center ice. Why does a team like Macau come to this? They got together a team, hired a coach, procured the required two sets of uniforms, took a week off work, and hopped across the strait for a hockey tournament, and they’re going home with 8th place and damaged body parts. Hell, they don’t even have a good story, insofar as the hockey-interested population in their hometown consists primarily of themselves and perhaps certain indulgent family members. Moreover, they had to have known going in that such was the probable outcome- one doesn’t play nothing but midnight scrimmages on a half-size mall rink and expect to win an international tournament against anyone.

This I would like to ask the Macau coach, but he storms past me in a theatrical huff, saying he’s very upset at the officials. I’d like to protest that I’m just the chick what reads the bullshit penalties, not the one what gives ‘em, but I doubt that makes a difference. I linger awhile, instead, behind the erstwhile losing net, staring at the battered ice, chatting with a stray Macau fan who tagged along for the tournament. Her husband, she says, played for a long time. They come to these tournaments, she says, to learn. But it’s hard to get better, all the same.

“We just don’t have the physical environment,” she says, looking with something approaching lust at the wide white surface before us, the ponderous Zamboni making its slow, thorough revolutions, the high silvery dome overhead, and I realize suddenly that not every hockey player born in this world is lucky enough to have a true rink. But good ice or bad, physical environment or no, a player is a player is a player, and they do as they do. We praise NHLers for being willing to risk their bodies for the game, getting nothing in return but the adulation of thousands and many millions of dollars. But try facing those risks and getting literally nothing, neither paycheck nor affection nor thrill of victory, nothing but a brace on your ankle and the playing of the game. That’s not just a hobby, kittens. That there is love.

Final Score: Kuwait 2, Macau 0

8 comments:

Bruce said...

Awesome post.

As usual. Keep 'em coming, please.

saskhab said...

Wow. That was incredible. I've been trying to understand what exactly this tournament (or other lower level IIHF ones) is like. This was a great read.

It's been a while. Good work, E.

Taylor said...

I really enjoyed that.

Scott Reynolds said...

Wonderful stuff! Thanks very much E. Every post of yours is a wonderful gift.

E said...

thanks, dudes. i know i'm not spitting stuff out as fast as i should, but it means a lot to have the encouragement.

while i'm getting the next one edited, a quick question: is there anything anyone would particularly like to know about hockey over here? i know all y'all are fairly well obsessed with nhl playoff minutiae these days, but i thought i'd ask on the off-chance...

J.T. said...

That was a wonderful story. These guys are the adult versions of the kids we see from our small towns who head into the big city tournaments knowing full well they'll be eaten alive by all-star teams who get to choose the best of sixteen goalies. Yet, they put on their hand-me-down sweaters with the local gas-station sponsor's logo emblazoned on the back, pick up the only kid in town with a set of goalie pads and bus off to the slaughter anyway. They get nothing but brotherhood, the fun of the game and maybe some timbits. Those kids, and the men you're watching play, are the soul of hockey.

What are you doing in Asia, anyway? :)

chad said...

I have never read anything from you before. I can't quite recall how the hell I stumbled on this posting. But I gotta tell you, that was a brilliant piece which I read from character A to punctuation point Z. Great story, great writing and great conclusion.

stucky said...

Tremendous post. I think I'll have to bookmark your site, if this is an indication on the quality of your hockey writing. Well done.