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By Tonichi C. Regalado & Toni M. Cortes – The Guidon

In a tropical country where temperatures can reach extreme heats, it comes as a surprise that the Philippines can make a name for itself on a playing field of ice. Although grass, water, and court sports have dotted the landscape of the nation’s sports scene, recent events have thrown winter sports into the spotlight, turning ice hockey into a new threshold of local talent and national pride.

Brought into prominence by success at several international tournaments, the Philippine Ice Hockey Team has skated its way onto local athletic fame. Dubbed the Philippines’ own “Mighty Ducks” after the ‘90s film of the same name, the team has emerged as the country’s latest sports heroes after victorious conquests on the ice at the 2017 Asian Winter Games (AWG) in February and the 2017 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in August. As Philippine sports reaches a new frontier, two Ateneans find themselves at the forefront of this athletic movement.

Origin stories

Meet Javi Cadiz and BJ Imperial, two Ateneans on the national ice hockey squad who have dedicated years perfecting their skills with a stick and a puck for both club and country. Cadiz plays as a defenseman, a position reserved for the first responders in front of the goalie, while Imperial operates as a forward on the frontline of attack.

Management junior Cadiz first put on a pair of skates when the sport piqued his interest as a three-year old at home under the influence of his father. Growing up in Germany, Cadiz’ father Deric played ice hockey recreationally and passed the passion to his sons, who acquired the same love for it as well. Javi and his older brothers, Ian and Nico, trained under their father’s supervision at an early age, with brotherhood fueling teamwork as all three siblings eventually joined forces on the national team.

“I loved the sport from the very first time I strapped on a pair of skates, and never looked back from then,” Cadiz shares.

Imperial, on the other hand, is newer to the sport, having begun his career in the rink six years ago. A member of the national team for nearly a year and a half, the management engineering sophomore made a lasting mark in Philippine hockey history, scoring the first goal of the 2017 SEA Games championship game. But despite playing at the the top level of international ice hockey, Imperial recalls his humble beginnings.

“I got into hockey when I first skated and a coach at the rink asked if I wanted to try playing,” shares Imperial. “I joined the training that night, and from then on I’ve been in love with the game.”

Shifting degrees

The Federation of Ice Hockey League (FIHL) is an associate member of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), and was established in 2015 as the organizing body for competition. Tasked with the formation of the national team, the FIHL leads an ongoing campaign to develop hockey among the youth to popularize the sport from the grassroots.

Despite taking a smaller share of the limelight compared to more conventional sports in a tropical country, ice hockey has grown leaps and bounds on the national stage, with players scoring local fame with accolades overseas. A bronze medal at the 2017 Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan served as the initial catalyst that knocked the team and the sport itself into the public eye, proving to be a milestone for both the athletes and the game.

History was made a few months later at the 2017 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia when ice hockey was named an event in the tournament for the first time. Representing the country in the Games’ inaugural ice hockey event, the squad concluded the tournament in record-smashing fashion, skating their way to an emotional golden finish.

“We were all very proud of this achievement,” says Imperial. “It was not only the very first gold medal the Philippines won in an international tournament, but also a historical win because it was the first time the SEA games had ice hockey.”

According to the sophomore, success at the Winter Games gave them the push to prove to their SEA Games competitors that their accomplishments were more than just beginner’s luck. Additionally, going head to head with other countries rewarded them with something worth more than any championship: Exposure and experience on international ice.

“Being exposed to Asian hockey giants like Japan, China, and Korea opened my eyes to what our country’s hockey program could become,” adds Cadiz enthusiastically. “Seeing that Asian countries, albeit more developed countries, could have such structured programs and develop such fundamentally sound players gave me hope that someday our program could be this good.”

In retrospect, early signs of promise and potential were hindered by the lack of resources and expertise to hone natural talent. But as the sport developed on local soil, the intervention of more experienced hands from abroad made an impact as an investment for the future of the sport.

“Eventually, we got more help from people who played professionally in other countries,” Imperial chimes in. “They volunteered, and now we have more than enough coaches to develop a [decent] hockey program.”

Beyond the ice

To make both school and country proud is a privilege, but to be pioneers of a rising sport in the country is a slow but honorable cause. Cadiz and Imperial, however, remain far from discouraged about the future prospects of the game.

“The hockey community here is pretty small if you compare it to sports like basketball and football,” says Cadiz. “But I’d say that around 100 players isn’t bad for a sport that really just started growing within the last two years.”

A gold medal provides solid groundwork for a new hockey campaign to flourish in the country, but the homegrown talents agree that aptitude to take to the ice must be boosted by accessibility and interest for the sport to truly take off.

“I believe we still lack the numbers. Ice hockey needs to become more accessible to anyone who wants to play and hopefully more people catch on and really develop interest,” adds Imperial.