Date: March 17, 2019

Road to the 2019 CCOA: Chinese Taipei

By Liz Montroy – Women’s Hockey Life

If there’s one team that historically has been the team to beat at the IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia (CCOA), it’s Chinese Taipei.

While still relatively new to the international women’s hockey scene, the country has won gold at all three of its CCOA appearances (2015, 2016 and 2018), also taking gold at the 2017 Women’s World Championships Division II Group B Qualification tournament and silver at the 2018 Women’s World Championships Division II Group B tournament.

Expectations may seem high for the team that has been put together to represent Chinese Taipei at the 2019 CCOA this April in the United Arab Emirates, but for head coach Andrew Yin, the focus will be on using this competition as a development opportunity.

“For this year’s CCOA, I’m trying not to put any pressure on the players, as this tournament is really for development of the younger players in Taiwan and giving the players that didn’t make the world championship team a chance to compete at the international stage,” said Yin.

Two such players are Hsin Jung (Kelly) Li and Hsin Yu (Amanda) Wang. Both made their international debut last season at the 2018 World Championships and both are looking to improve their offensive skills through playing in the 2019 CCOA.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how the other teams play hockey and meet new friends, but most of all I hope we have a good performance at the CCOA,” said Li. “Especially I hope I can score or assist for our team.”

Li has been playing hockey for three years, having taken up the sport after being introduced to ice skating as a college freshman.

Wang, who started out with roller hockey before taking to ice hockey, will also be attending the 2019 World Championships.

“I’ve never scored a goal in an international tournament before and I scored my first ever goal just two months ago,” said Wang. “It was such a wonderful feeling so I want to have that feeling again on the international stage.”

Both Li and Wang are in their twenties, with Li being one of the program’s older players at the age of 25. The teams that Chinese Taipei has iced at IIHF tournaments have been noticeably young (even when not purposefully sending their U18 team, as they did with last season’s CCOA), with the average age usually being around 19 or 20.

Why so young? Yin says that the female hockey program in Chinese Taipei didn’t really kick off until about three and a half years ago, so most of the girls that started playing or joined the national program then haven’t yet finished school.

“I am one of the few female players who already entered the workforce,” said Li. “I’m trying to keep playing as much as possible, even though now I have to work. Most of the players are students and after they graduate from college they might be going to work, so some players quit playing ice hockey.”

Yin says that 90% of Chinese Taipei’s female hockey players are still in school, and notes that there may be a variety of reasons for why some quit once they reach Li’s age.

“The players that quit, from my understanding is not because they enter the workforce, it’s because of the younger players coming up and pushing them out of the national team, and since there aren’t many girls club team games, they stop being competitive.”

The sole female hockey club in Chinese Taipei is Girl Power, which used to be part of the now defunct three-team Chinese Taipei Women’s Hockey League (CTWHL). The other two teams folded several years ago, one because of coaching issues and the other because it was a junior high school girls team that had most of its players graduate.

Now, Girl Power, which Wang and other young national team players play for, competes against junior and senior high school club teams in national tournaments, playing around 10 to 15 games a year.

National program players like Li who are over the age of 20 mostly just practice with the national team, which gets several ice times a week and occasional exhibition games against high school teams.

This year’s Chinese Taipei CCOA team will have several Girl Power players on it, along with several of last season’s gold medallists. With so many new and young players competing, the event has the potential to identify Chinese Taipei’s up and coming stars, as it did with Hui Chen Yeh at the 2015 and 2016 CCOA.

After making her international debut at the 2015 event and scoring five goals and three assists, Yeh (who is now 19 years old) eventually become the country’s all-time leading scorer. She had 14 goals and 22 points at the 2016 CCOA, and 11 goals at both the 2017 and 2018 World Championships, along with a few assists at each.

“I believe [the CCOA] is important for the development of women’s hockey in Taiwan as it gives most players hope for the future and it keeps players in the game,” said Yin. “What I’m really hoping to accomplish at the tournament really is to let everyone try their best and have fun. The result will take care of itself.”

Road to the 2019 CCOA: Malaysia ices dynamic goaltending duo

By Liz Montroy – Women’s Hockey Life

There may be a 25 year age gap between Tg Farhana Azuma Tg Abdillah and Wen Min Low, but together they make up Malaysia’s promising and talented goaltending duo.

The two goalies will once again be protecting Malaysia’s net at the upcoming 2019 IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia (CCOA), having also done so last season. Their age difference could perhaps be one of their biggest strengths, with each bringing a different experience and outlook to the team.

Tg Abdillah has been a mainstay of Malaysia’s women’s hockey program for several years, and has represented the country at each of the IIHF Women’s CCOA events that Malaysia has participated in.

“I would say Azuma [Tg Abdillah] has been there for the Malaysian team from the very beginning. I don’t remember a time when we didn’t have her as a goalie,” said national team player Eunice Boon.

Tg Abdillah, a former inline hockey player who took up ice hockey in 1998 after the opening of the country’s Sunway Pyramid rink, gradually moved from forward to defence to goaltending. In 2003, she became one of Malaysia’s first female goaltenders.

“I’m not sure what made me do it,” said Tg Abdillah. While she eventually took some time off from the sport, she returned to ice hockey about five years ago. “When I came back I was asked if I could play in net since they needed another goaltender for an upcoming tournament in Singapore and I said yes. Again, I have no idea why I said yes, however, I have grown to love being a goaltender.”

Malaysia faced some tough competition in the 2016 and 2017 CCOA events, but had a fantastic showing at the 2018 tournament, winning the gold medal in Division I to earn promotion to the Top Division this year. Tg Abdillah had a career-defining tournament, leading all goalies with a 931.0 save percentage and a 1.43 goals against average.

While Tg Abdillah has now become accustomed to competing on the international stage, the 2018 CCOA was Low’s first introduction to a IIHF competition. Fifteen year old Low only played just under 12 minutes in a 5-0 win over India in the tournament, and while she has yet to achieve more of a starting role, she represents the future of hockey in Malaysia.

“Min brings hope to the women’s team that this isn’t a dying position, and that there are young Malaysian girls like her who still want to play goalie,” said Boon. There are currently less than 10 female goalies in Malaysia, with only three being qualified to play for the national team based on their age and skill level.

Like Tg Abdillah, Low also came to ice hockey through inline hockey, and also started as a player before taking up goaltending. When her team was in need a goalie for a tournament four years ago, her coach brought out a set of equipment for the players to try out.

“When I tried on the gear and took shots for the first time, I found it natural to butterfly,” said Low. “We weren’t told what we had to do … I just did it anyways. I liked the position a lot better than I liked being a player, so I decided to be the team’s goalie.”

The relationship that has developed between Tg Abdillah, a mature and experienced goaltender, and Low, a younger goalie who is relatively new to the scene, is unique. Tg Abdillah doesn’t see their relationship as being that of a mentor and mentee.

“It’s more like we understand what we’re going through as a goalie and we become each other’s motivator,” said Tg Abdillah. Other players on the national team, such as Boon, agree.

“[They] are more like sisters,” said Boon. “I think Azuma [Tg Abdillah] watches out for Min [Low] a lot as she understands the performance pressure for goalies is very tough and difficult mentally.”

However, Tg Abdillah still serves as a role model for Low, who definitely looks up to her goaltending counterpart and often reaches out to her when she needs advice and comfort.

“The relationship between Azuma and I is something I would consider very special,” said Low. “We encourage and motivate each other mostly by cheering for one another, and it’s awesome having another goalie to be able to talk to, something I’ve never had the privilege of doing anywhere else.”

The 2019 CCOA could prove to be a challenge, with Malaysia competing in the Top Division against Chinese Taipei, Thailand, Singapore, and New Zealand’s U18 team, teams they have previously struggled against in the CCOA.

However, with Tg Abdillah’s experience, leadership, and fantastic 2018 season, Low’s youthfulness and motivation to improve, and the duo’s strong friendship, Malaysia looks good to go with their goaltending.

Road to the 2019 CCOA: Enthusiastic spirit carries Singapore through highs and lows

By Liz Montroy – Women’s Hockey Life

Singapore’s female ice hockey players know that they are fighting an uphill battle. However, that knowledge seems to be fuelling their passion for the sport they love.

“I’ve never felt more hope in my entire life than this previous year,” said forward Kiarra Chin.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much reason for her hope. The country has just 51 registered female hockey players, and female goaltenders are few and far between; there are only two in the country with Singaporean citizenship.

Singapore has two rinks, but only one is used for ice hockey, and the female program competes with a number of other user groups for ice time, usually resulting in them practicing late into the night.

Last season, the country allowed 36 goals against and scored just five goals through three games in the top division of the 2018 IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia (CCOA).

Singapore’s players long to perform well on the international stage, but know that they are facing tough competition as well as a number of obstacles that hinder them from improving.

“We do know the people, the countries around us, and how ice hockey is actually developing very well in those countries,” said player and program director Valerie Cheng.

However, Singapore’s women’s team has an enthusiastic spirit which allows them to simply enjoy hockey for what it is despite the many challenges they face.

“I think overall the team is a very positive team,” said Cheng. “We encourage one another and off the ice we joke a lot and have a lot of fun together.”

The current era of female hockey in Singapore was kickstarted in 2012, when the JCube rink was opened after four years of there being no ice hockey rink in Singapore (Fuji Ice, the country’s former main hockey rink, was closed in 2008).

Many of the program’s current players, such as captain Emily Kwek and goaltender Caroline Ang, have inline hockey experience and picked up ice hockey in the years following the opening of the JCube rink.

Kwek, Ang and Cheng were all part of the team that took part in the country’s first ever IIHF women’s event, the 2014 CCOA. They finished third out of four teams.

“The first one was terrifying,” Ang said of the team’s international debut. “I think I was only a year into playing at that point, and I’d only ever played casual league games … If you look at the score, the shots on goal, we were terribly outshot.”

However, that first tournament gave Singapore a taste of what their program could achieve. The CCOA quickly became the marquee event for women’s hockey in Singapore.

“The whole experience kind of feels like this is the lifestyle, you can kind of experience it like a hockey player,” said Ang.

“You wake up in the morning, you go for your training, after you nap, you play at night, so it kind of takes you out from your daily life.”

While Singapore did not take part in the 2015 CCOA, by the time they returned the following year, the field of teams had grown. They finished third out of five teams in 2016 and third out of seven teams in 2017.

For the 2018 CCOA, Singapore was placed in the top of two divisions along with New Zealand, Thailand and Taipei, and finished last. However, the attitude of Singapore’s players after losing 14-3, 10-1 and 12-1 is an example of their tenacious and forward-looking character.

“When it ended, I just kept thinking that I can’t wait for more,” said Tiffany Yeoh, who made her debut with the women’s team at the 2018 event.

Singapore will be competing in the top division again at the 2019 CCOA, and the players are looking forward to seeing how they have improved. The team is specifically hoping to increase their number of shots on goal and have closer games against the other teams.

Over the last year, ice times have been progressively improving, and Cheng has collaborated closely with the JCube rink to run learn to play hockey sessions. There is even talk about trying to see if Singapore could have a second rink that could be used for hockey.

“I’m just trying to look at it like baby steps,” said Chin of the progression of ice hockey in Singapore. “I feel like baby steps are big steps for a team like Singapore.”

Regardless of whether or not Singapore can compete with the top teams, the country has a group of players who are passionate about playing the sport and sharing it with others, which is arguably more important than winning a gold medal.

Road to the 2019 CCOA: New Zealand

By Liz Montroy – Women’s Hockey Life

Abbey Heale, at just 17 years old, has already played for New Zealand’s senior women’s ice hockey team (the Ice Fernz) at two IIHF World Championships. Also on her resume is the IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia (CCOA), which she competed in in 2017, and will be competing in for a second time in 2019.

Heale represents the first group of young female hockey players from New Zealand to fully experience the country’s U18 Women’s Development Program, which is aimed at building a feeder system for the senior team and preparing young athletes to compete at a higher level, such as with the Ice Fernz.

While the IIHF has a U18 Women’s World Championship program, New Zealand has yet to have enough players in order to join it, hence the creation of the current ideation of the U18 Women’s Development Program. While this program doesn’t lead to a World Championship, it has become largely built around the CCOA.

When the U18 Women’s Development Program was first loosely created in 2013, it was centered around an exhibition series against Australia’s U18 team. In 2015, that shifted to an exhibition series against a team from the Toronto Leaside Girls Hockey Association.

While the girls in the program got an opportunity to play against teams from other countries, the program’s leaders recognized that they needed an opportunity for their players to compete internationally on a larger scale.

“The New Zealand U18 women’s team was looking for a competition arena, and the CCOA seemed to be a good fit,” said team manager Philippa Kaisser, who also mentioned that the program’s leaders initially had to overcome resistance to the idea of needing an opportunity for the U18 team to compete internationally.

Today, the CCOA is the highlight of the U18 Women’s Development Program, and this season will mark New Zealand’s third appearance in the event. Their first appearance was in the 2017 CCOA, which they won. They came second in the Top Division of the 2018 CCOA.

“The CCOA is a great tournament for our team as it is run along similar lines to a World Championship and thus gives the girls experience of an international competition that they wouldn’t otherwise get until competing on the senior women’s team,” said Kaisser.

Players who have gone on to compete with the Ice Fernz have seen the benefits of playing in the CCOA. “They have already been overseas to an IIHF-run ice hockey tournament and so have more of an idea of what will happen there,” said Kaisser. “Some of the players have only played at a small, club level, so have no idea of the huge arena that is international ice hockey.”

While Heale played in her first IIHF World Championship with the Ice Fernz just days before competing with the U18 team in the 2017 CCOA, the goal is that players will instead first get accustomed to the international stage at the CCOA. Players such as Hannah Cross, Rina Watt and Harriet Fuller will be making their first international appearance with the Ice Fernz this season after a few years in the U18 Women’s Development Program.

This season, there are many players who made the U18 Women’s Development Program for the first time, with just seven players returning from last season’s team. The roster includes goaltender Lilly Forbes, who had an impressive 93.59 SV% and 1.97 GAA through three games at the 2018 CCOA.

While prominent goal scorer Beth Scott is not on the roster this season due to spending time in Canada, Heale is returning after a year away from the team, and is expected to be a significant source of offence for them. She was a successful goal scorer at the 2017 CCOA and has proven her goal scoring capabilities in the New Zealand Women’s Ice Hockey League (NZWIHL).

While the CCOA continues to serve as a great avenue for New Zealand to develop its young players, the goal is still to enter the IIHF’s U18 Women’s World Championship program. This year, head coach Angelique Mawson and assistant coach Michelle Cox had approximately 35 eligible players to select their team from, and they anticipate that next year that number will increase to 45.

“While we are very close to fulfilling the criteria for inclusion in the IIHF [U18 Women’s] World Championship program, we are not quite there yet as far as female player numbers in the age group category is concerned,” said Kaisser. “Although numbers are steadily rising.”