Sunday, June 06, 2010

IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia, Part 3: Star

yes, i know this is not at all timely. i'm being counter-hegemonic.

The Taipei Times was not impressed. The Challenge Cup of Asia does not generally get a lot of media attention, being as how the countries represented are not known for their broad interest in hockey. There was some television coverage- it was shown locally in Taiwan, and both the Kuwaitis and the Emiratis brought some kind of broadcast team- but beyond that, it was not much discussed in the public sphere. But the Times did run one article, and they were not fucking impressed.

“The skating was slow, the body checks flaccid and the slap shots lacking in zing…”

“… a sorry mishmash of porous goaltending, sloppy passing and anemic shooting.”

This was, of course, the article that TSN picked up, although they baulked at the emasculating adjective ‘flaccid’, replacing it with ‘soft’.

From a certain perspective, the points are valid, but they are not from any perspective useful. It does not benefit sub-Division III Asian ice hockey to note its deficiencies vis-à-vis the NHL game. And frankly, it’s cruel and dehumanizing to do so. Canadian hockey is over a century old, the Scandanavian and Slavic varieties just under. Most of the national hockey programs here represented are 21st century creatures, even their forbears are younger than the Blue Jackets. It’s like comparing Timbits players to the pros- the salient fact is not that they’re worse at the game, it’s that they’re younger.

Fortunately, with the exception of a small coterie of more or less forgiving Canadian expats, the swelling crowd in IceLand does not know that this is bad hockey. Taiwanese fans, few though they may be, are pleasantly enthusiastic about the games they watch, and this- being the bronze medal match- has drawn a credible crowd. It promises to be a good game. The level of overall skill is higher, something desirable is at stake, and the teams are both ‘good’ opponents- not obnoxious like the UAE, nor uncomfortably familiar like Hong Kong. Also, it features Loke.


In case you were wondering, hockey skill is inherited culturally rather than genetically. The only reason such a large percentage of Southeast Asians are not very good at hockey is because they were born and raised in Southeast Asia, where the identification and development of hockey skill is not customarily a high priority. Every now and then, though, somebody’s parents get a job in Calgary or Stockholm, and somebody gets plucked from their verdant, mango-filled childhood and transplanted to a harsh country of preserved meats and long winters, and every now and then that somebody turns out to have the skills necessary to be a pretty decent hockey player.

To the poor coaches trying to put together a winning team in a tiny, hot country, these guys are The Holy Grail. More than that, even, they are the Messiah inside the Ark of the Covenant being carried by the hybrid offspring of the latest incarnation of Buddha mated with the latest avatar of Vishnu, plated in solid gold and coated with chocolate sprinkles for absolutely no good reason. They are the deus ex machine that might take your team, at the level you play at, from bottom-feeding to mid-level, or mid-level to championship contention. You can drill the most pliable, willing, naturally gifted 16 year old Macanese kids on your half-sized rink for a thousand punishing midnights and come nowhere near the level of a Russian (Canadian, Swiss, Swedish, Czech, Finnish)-raised teenager with a local passport. It’s the nature of hockey- the game must be learned young and hard to be learned fully. There is not enough money, enough practice, enough coaching in the world to make great players grow in a non-hockey culture. The hard truth is, even under the best of circumstances, even if the rinks stay open and the government sponsorships hold and the economy remains stable enough for families to keep their kids in the program, even if the good players stick with the game and don’t give it up for bank jobs and children of their own… even if all they dream comes to pass, the hockey programs at the CCOA are decades away from Division II. In the short term, your best players- and your best chance to win big- are the expats.

Hong Kong had a few of these, but none of superlative ability; Canadians who’d played casually, as all Canadians do, but never specialized in the game. Taiwan has one, but he has yet to show what he can do. Malaysia, on the other hand, has Loke.

If it is possible to be a breakout hockey star at a relatively obscure minor tournament, Loke is it. He’s Malaysian by birth, but Swedish by practice. Sweden is where he lives, where he learned the game, where he still plays the majority of his hockey. On his best shifts, he looks so distinctly European in his style- so swift, so polished, so clever- that more than one fan I spoke to subsequently swore up and down that he was actually white.

Him, the Taipei Times liked, swooning over his hand-eye coordination, his slapshot, his acceleration. It went so far as to invoke Crosby and Ovechkin in describing one of his early tournament plays. The critical difference being, of course, that Crosby and Ovechkin make their plays against highly-paid professional defenders, where as Loke made his against Macau. But imagine, that makes him all the more impressive. The difference between Loke and much of his competition, in terms of raw skill, is greater than the difference between Ovechkin and Joe Fourthline- so the plays he can pull off are all the more dazzling.

For the crowd at IceLand, he may well be the best player they’ve ever seen- certainly the best scoring forward, and they are duly impressed. In the round robin, he helped Malaysia put up gaudy scoring totals against the weaker teams, and ultimately he is the reason the team has come as far as it has. Typically, Malaysia would be hardly above Mongolia in level of play, certainly a weaker team than the long-practiced Hong Kong squad. This tournament, however, they have a chance at 3rd. Loke is the kind of player who, in a competition like this, can steal games. We want to see how big a game it is possible to steal.

Standing in his way is Thailand, a perennially good-bad team. The league in Bangkok is small and intimate, only four teams and maybe sixty players, but the Thais who come out of it are smart players and good skaters. The Land of Smiles Classic, every October, is easily the most popular open tournament in Asia (of course it is, the country is inexpensive, beautiful, delicious, and legendary for it’s hedonistic pleasures- what team wouldn’t consider spending it’s travel budget on that trip?), and the locals typically win the all-Asian division, plus they play regularly with the Flying Farangs, one of the regions best and oldest expat clubs. With their size, their sense, their coordination borne of long experience playing with each other, and their totally badass black uniforms, the Thais are a force in this tournament.

Not unexpectedly, Thailand dominates territorially in the early going. Their players are remarkably strong on their skates, solid on the puck, and they know the most important thing at this level: how to play within their limits. In low-level hockey, a big part of winning isn’t what you do, it’s what you don’t do. Don’t dangle. Don’t pinch. Don’t overskate. Don’t ditch your position. Keep it simple. The Thais don’t have a lot of style, but they have a beautiful sense of economy.

It is only when Loke takes a shift that the balance changes. This is a dude who doesn’t care much for the offensive zone, and his very presence makes the Thais sit back a little and, occasionally, have to concede their own blue line. Unfortunately for the Malaysians, it is one of their few offensive salvos that burns them first. Thailand’s stud defenseman Neimwan Likit recovers the puck in his own end, skates the full length of the ice, and whacks it in the back of the net with an unceremonious little quasi-slapshot.

1-0 at the end of the first, and Malaysia still might pull it out. But then, in the second, Thailand gets two quick goals- another slapshot from the same defenseman, and a forward capitalizing only a moment later. 3-0. No matter how bright your superstar, that’s a big deficit against a smart, positional team.

Loke hasn’t done a lot. He’s gotten some chances, a few of them good, but nothing especially spectacular. Every shift he takes, the crowd gets a little louder, every time he gets the puck, there are a few more shrieks and hoots than usual, but he has yet to do anything that might shift the overwhelming momentum of the Thais.

And then, nearly halfway through the game, he does. He intercepts a Thai pass, picks it off like it was meant for him, slips snakelike through three opponents, and flips it up high and spinning over the goalie’s blocker. The whole building freaks out, and he does a lazy, casual victory circle like it ain’t no thing.

The fascination with Loke, in this small sphere- among the Taiwanese hockey fans, the expats, the Taipei Times- is the fascination with star players everywhere. Star players are not just good players, or even the best players, they’re game-changing players, the ones who can take the game you think you’re watching, the obvious natural conclusion, and break it wide open. At the CCOA and other tournaments like it, you can always believe your eyes. The team that looks better will, almost inevitably, win. This is the situation where, even in a one-game elimination, upsets are not common. The skill differentials are that wide. So a star like Loke, a guy who can score by himself, on almost any given shift, is one of the few wild cards in play.

But their power can be illusory. There is a temptation to see those occasional game-changing shifts as more important then they actually are. We see them, and swoon, and think this man can do anything anytime, but the truth is a little duller- he can do anything on very select, unpredictable occasions. Any star plays far more banal shifts than glamorous ones, and for a lot of them, an opportunity still needs to present. The trick for a hockey team is to get five guys who can create a sequence of opportunities from any point on the ice to the goal line, to make your star’s opportunities regular and predictable rather than occasional and incidental. And doing that, without a roster of 15 stars, is excruciatingly difficult. With a roster of 15 Malaysians, it’s impossible.

He’s awesome, this star, but he’s not enough. The Thais pick up two more goals at the beginning of the third, effectively sealing the bronze medal. But before the end, as if in one final act of showmanship, Loke Ban Kin takes Likit’s initial goal and one-ups it, swooping through the neutral zone at full speed, tracing a long arc across the Malaysian zone around the base of the circles, and then firing it without breaking stride or even looking, virtually as an afterthought. It is lovely, and adored. It is the most applauded game-losing goal I have ever seen.

The Taipei Times looked at this tournament and thought they saw the best of the tournament in Loke’s comfortable stride. They were wrong. The best of hockey is not the best player, but the best team, and the Thais are one of the best-worst teams you’ll ever find.


Anonymous said...

I'm still waiting for the Taiwan-UAE article Ellen


E said...

bah, i know.

punctuality is not my strong suit. i would love to promise it'd be worth the wait, but...