Monday, April 26, 2010

IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia, Part 2: Winter


In Taipei, we have just crossed the threshold of April, and it is indeed a cruel month so far. Cruel, at least, to the spirit, for it is the fifth- or sixth or perhaps three hundredth, a long time anyway- month of perpetual rain. The temperature fluctuates from frigid to chilly, but the rain is a uniform, unvaried drizzle day after day, week after week. There hasn’t been a sunny Saturday since sometime in September.

It is a testimony to the cultural hegemony of white folk that the concept of ‘four seasons’ has become so internationally widespread. If you live in North America, in Northern Europe, it seems so inevitable as to be an intrinsic part of nature, this annual cycle of death and rebirth, but it’s really a fairly localized phenomenon. Most adult Taiwanese are aware that it exists in other parts of the world and have adopted the vocabulary of winter, spring, summer, and fall, but when I try to teach my students- 2-3 years old- that the leaves turn brown and the trees die and white, fluffy ice falls from the sky like rain- they treat me as though I’m insane. They’ve never seen it, some of them probably never will. Their experience of seasons will be the alternation cold and the hot, drizzly and stormy, but always the same lush forests, the same mists on the mountains, every month unto every year. Taipei will never have a winter.

That fact is surprisingly irrelevant to the local ice hockey program. Hockey is a winter sport now by convention rather than necessity. We like it to be played in winter for aesthetic reasons, because a nip in the air and a freeze on the pond makes it feel like hockey-time. But at this point, playing hockey in the ‘winter’ (as if September-June was actually winter, even in North America) is just a custom, the tradition of our people. The reality is that anyone playing at a level above Junior A or in a town big enough to be considered such is playing in an environment so perfectly separated from the outside world that it might as well be an aquarium. A hockey rink is a climate-controlled habitat, and the only difference between running one in Edmonton in February and Bangkok in August is the size of the electrical bill.

Most of the teams at the Challenge Cup are here by the grace of refrigeration. Certain mountain peaks in Taiwan are cold enough to freeze of their own accord, but Malaysia and Thailand are beach-and-jungle lands, Kuwait and UAE are deserts. If you lived in one of these places a couple hundred years ago, you could well have gone your entire life without any awareness of ‘freezing’ as a state of matter.

In a very real way, the mall is the mother of Southeast Asian ice hockey. Who, you have to wonder, is willing to take on the expense of running an ice rink in a certifiably tropical climate? Malls. Huge shiny luxury shopping malls. For half the countries here, hockey was born between the food court and the Burberry store, and for most of those it remains there. Only Thailand has graduated from mall hockey to rink hockey- in Macau and Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, the game is still played primarily in the palatial atria of high-end shopping centers during off-hours, for an audience of bemused consumers resting their feet.

Hong Kong, she is the queen of the mall hockey nations. Hong Kong has taken mall hockey and transformed it from a punchline into a development method. On a succession of mall rinks over the past decade, they’ve grown a playing population of over a thousand people, all ages and both genders, playing in several leagues based in various malls- the largest of which includes four distinct tiers of men’s play and a women’s division. They host the Hong Kong Fives, the most famous- if not necessarily the most popular- of the annual private Asian hockey tournaments (N.B.: Tournaments in Asia can be divided into two categories, those like the Challenge Cup which are sponsored by the IIHF or some other international sport federation and are entered by national teams, and those like the Hong Kong Fives or the Land of Smiles Classic, which can be entered by any group of people willing to meet certain minimum team requirements. The former are where you see Asian hockey players. The latter are where you see Canadian ex-pats who live in Asia.).

By reputation, Hong Kong is a good team. They should be. They have a large, practiced player pool to draw from, and they have a substantial number of ringers- guys who are functionally Canadian but have Hong Kong passports. Early impressions figured them to be in contention with Thailand and UAE for the top position. But they’ve underperformed, losing a critical early game to the Taiwanese, tying UAE up at 0-0, and barely squeezing out a win against Mongolia- good for third in their pool, disqualifying them from medal contention. Yes, they drew a difficult pool, and yes, they’ve come up against some hot goalies, but there’s no good excuse for a team with considerable speed, non-negligible hands, and lengthy playing experience to have put up the fewest Goals For in the tournament. Nevertheless, if there was any disappointment or recrimination in the ranks, Hong Kong has kept it to themselves, and by the time it comes to the fifth place game, the team’s collective demeanor is so casual they might as well trade in their pads and skates for Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops.

Mongolia, however, is the team that does wear T-shirts and flip-flops. Every other team that comes into this arena wears the official track suits, and many of the fans dress as for the Iditarod, but the Mongolians always have a couple of dudes just lounging in basketball shorts like 15 degrees ain’t no kind of cold. Which, in point of fact, it isn’t, by Mongolian standards.

Sandwiched as it is between the most frigid lonesome reaches of Russia and the most frigid lonesome reaches of China, Mongolia couldn’t avoid playing hockey any more than it could have avoided being Communist for a spell. The game was introduced in the early 1960s (along with bandy, which is still popular as well) by Russians, and an intra-Mongolian league has been running on and off for nearly that long, but it wasn’t until 1999 that they played an international match, and not until 2007 that they started sending regular teams to IIHF events. Their hockey history is at least twice as long as any other country in the tournament, but most of it has been played in isolation- they are a geographic, political, linguistic, and economic world apart from the tiny, sunny nations they play against.

But what sets them apart- more than the unpronounceable vowel-laden names, more than the eccentric hats, more even than the poverty- is where they play. Mongolia is probably the last country on earth where hockey is played exclusively outdoors. There is not now, nor ever has been, an indoor rink anywhere in the country. They play full-contact hockey on natural ice, in -25 degree winters, on rinks with raw plank boards and chain-link fencing above, under a haze of coal smoke, under the great blue sky that set Chinggis Khan a-marauding his way across the continent all those years ago.

The point being that Mongolian hockey players have tremendous, grapefruit-sized, iron-plated balls, and I dare any Canadian who thinks of himself as a hardened, old-school hockey guy just because he used to play some Sunday afternoons as a kid on frozen rivers with a wooden stick and hand-me-down blades packed with newspapers in the toes to play a season- hell, even a month- in their skates. Prior evidence suggests that the average non-Mongolian’s tolerance for Mongolian hockey life is under a week- a couple days of thrill followed by a couple days of culture shock and then a swift slide into mommy-take-me-home territory. Mongolian hockey is everything Canadian hockey hasn’t been in a century and wishes it still was: working class, rural, macho, natural, simple. Respect.

Despite that, it’s also not especially good hockey. The downside of playing on natural ice is that you only play in winter. The Mongolian hockey season runs from December to February, and while there’s still usable ice for some unpredictable length of time after that, there is no practice or training whatsoever in the summer. And being not exactly flush with gym equipment nor up on the latest sports conditioning methods, the team doesn’t even work out during the off season. They are, their coach tells me, starting up a floorball league, which they hope will help mitigate the inevitable slackening of skill during the unfrozen months.

Bottom line, sixth place is about the best Mongolia might have hoped for, and fifth is about the worst Hong Kong can settle for, so this game has all the tension of your average late-season Oilers game. The probable outcome is very emphatically probable, and it’s not as if an upset is going to make a whole lot of difference anyway. The arena has filled up now, but it’s a bustling crowd. The other teams are coming and going, in and out and up and down, getting dressed or undressed or moving equipment or asking questions or eating lunch or having meetings, and pausing to watch in the interstices. The organizers are getting things settled for the final, with a great shuffling of paper and many hushed, hurried consultations in corners. Jukka Tikkaja, the Finn who is the IIHF’s man on the ground in East Asia, is sitting in the VIP section with a very large laptop perched on his knees and a faintly strained smile that conveys a constant readiness to consult with any concerned member of any delegation about any detail of the tournament for any reason, as well as a willingness to pose for photographs. I do not envy this man his job.

The scorer’s bench is the worst seat in the arena to think from. Sandwiched between the ice and the stands on a thin strip of cordoned walkway, what it shows you of the game is mostly emotional. You hear everything- the crowd, the music, the skates and the hits and the advisory monosyllables hurled one player to another mid-rush- but you don’t see very well, especially not in the corners or through bodies. It’s the adrenaline view, not the analytical one.

The Mongolians play heavy. They’re not necessarily much bigger than the other teams, but they nevertheless give an impression of tremendous bulk. Perhaps it’s because they’re the only team at this dance that habitually plays the hitting game, or perhaps it’s because they tend to be built squarer than the opposing players. Perhaps it’s just because they’re slow as frozen fuck. Although they’re not bad skaters in the formal sense, having a certain agility and plenty of sturdy confidence in their strides, they have no pickup whatsoever. It makes their version of hockey come off as methodical to a fault- they go in to the zone, set up in positions, and just stay in or about the same spots, planted firmly and thwacking anyone who tries to dislodge them.

Through the first, it seems to be working for them. They’re not getting a lot of chances, but they’ve colonized the Hong Kong zone and between decent passing and puck protection are playing prolonged keep-away with the defenders. The problem is, all it takes is one breakdown and it’s over, since there’s no way they’re catching up to a HK player on the straightaway, unless, being assured of victory, said HK player decided to take a nap on the red line. Hong Kong seems to get this, because they’re not bothering to try to engage physically (I’d later learn this was exactly their game plan), they’re just waiting to pick off weak passes. And then they catch one, and another, and each time the HK forward finds himself careening through the neutral zone with nothing but fair white ice on all sides and a relatively untested goaltender straight ahead, and it gets to 0-2 pretty quickly.

One of the cool things about Hong Kong is that- being a former British colony and a third Canadian anyway- their common language is English, and there is no privacy at the Challenge Cup of Asia. There are no dressing rooms to retire to, so every team has a favorite spot to hang out during the intermissions- some like to congregate in the back corners of the rink, others actually just go sit in the stands, and some go chill in the lobby. Hong Kong is a lobby team, so they’re mid-game strategy meetings attract a large crowd of curious onlookers, snapping pictures or just standing around nodding sagely as their captain dishes out his advice. Which mainly amounts to Keep Your Heads Up and Protect the Blue Line (N.B.: Keeping one’s head up is one of those Canadian hockey concepts that doesn’t translate well to other hockey cultures, mostly because it’s really hard and seems totally irrelevant in places where hit-throwing is not a sophisticated art.)

Come the second, Hong Kong plays their game- the fleet-footed, soft-handed one- and extends their lead two goals further in a flash. That, quite obviously, is the game. Mongolia is not a five-goals-in-thirty-minutes team. But they ain’t quitters neither. Just before the end of the second, their captain catches a puck on the fly behind the HK defense and, wonder of wonders, gets a breakaway of his own. The Hong Kong goalie is, understandably, surprised. 1-4. The third brings another goal on each side, with Mongolia getting a last-minute losing marker that elicits scattered cheers around the filling arena, and the occasional totally unironic ‘Jia You!’ (literally, ‘add fuel!’, the Chinese phrase equivalent to ‘Go, _____ go!’). Indeed.

You can’t necessarily see the Canada in the Hong Kong team, but you can hear it- not just in the dipthongs but in the polished, NHL-packaged way of talking about hockey. I ask, as I do, a few questions after the game, and they are the only team in the whole tournament who treats me as ‘media’ rather than ‘somewhat irritating but flatteringly curious lady with a notebook’. Outside the basement storage closet that serves as their locker room, the HK captain comes out with a towel around his neck, and staring intermittently at his skates and my left ear, tells me how this tournament isn’t about winning, it’s just about having fun and making friends and the good of the game, and it’s great for hockey to see things like this happen. It’s true, but it rings false, or at least disingenuous- for most of the teams here, this tournament is something a little grander, a little rarer than just fun and fellowship. Maybe that’s Hong Kong’s problem: too much perspective and a healthy sense of scale. They have seen the NHL and it is not them.

Mongolia, on the other hand, is still an inward-looking team, heroes of their own quixotic saga. This tournament, every tournament, is one small step up, an inch closer to some unspecified but deeply desired future legitimacy. They’re coach is full of plans, the first of which is the IIHF Division III Men’s Championships in Armenia, where they have high hopes of knocking off South Africa for third. But mostly, they’re just chasing the winter, extending their season through whatever ice-surfaces will have them, bartering vodka and game-worn jerseys for secondhand equipment, and playing as long as possible before going home to the tragic inevitability of summer. And floorball.


Marc.E.B. said...

Ellen, I love reading into your original thoughts of hockey. My love for the game grows with every word.

Be well!

Say "Hello!" to my man Julian. Hopefully we'll see the both of you on your trip.

Joe said...

This was a really interesting post, I love this sort of stuff. My fiancee and I are actually moving to Mongolia in the near future and I was hoping to get involved with Mongolian Ice Hockey in some way. I am a certified USA Hockey official and have played since I was a kid.

I'd be interested in any thoughts you might have about how to get involved in something like this.

Liviu Bird said...

Great writing, as usual. Your perspectives are enlightening and very nice to read. Keep it up.

E said...

hey marc, julian says hi, and that you should come back to taiwan. i'm glad you're still reading. but i'm confused... what trip are you referring to?

joe- i'll talk to some people here, see what i can come up with as far as contacts in the mongolian league. both the manager and coach i talked to spoke good english, but i'm not sure about the state of their electronic communications, so you might have to figure stuff out on the ground. i know a bunch of players here who've gone to mongolia for tournaments, though, and everyone agrees it's one of the strangest, most exciting trips they've taken. cold as fuck, rough hockey, and kids trying to steal your equipment if you leave it for two seconds. but, honestly, i think a foreign perspective could do them some good. one of the things i didn't touch on in this post that i learned at the ccoa was that there seems to be a strong correlation between hockey advancement and playing with people from hockey countries (canada, finland, russia, etc.). not being coached by or trained by, but playing with and against. so i'd think your contributions could bring them something quite new.

liviu- thanks!

Joe said...

Any contacts you could provide would be excellent! I think with these types of things, it's really hard to get things set up ahead of time. I think you're right that I'll have to do some of this once I'm there, but if I can get an idea of who to talk to before I head over, that'd be a big start.


Julian said...

Joe :

The guys in Beijing work with Mongolian ice hockey, though I'm not sure to what level. The guy you'd probably want to contact there would be Ray Plummer, I hear he's the BMOC of Beijing hockey, and probably the guy who talks to the Mongolians.
Write him with your interests and qualifications, and I'm sure he'd pass you on to someone in Mongolia.

Marc, come back man. Or, find something for me to do in Ottawa and I'll go there.

Paul @ the Unstable Margins said...

Just discovered your blog. Am a formerly love-struck hockey fan and lapsed writer from Canada and what I am reading here, and in posts such as your hymn to Speed, is flat-out the best hockey writing I've ever read.

Keep going. I may not fall in love with hockey again, but with writing...

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