By Today Online

This year could be a pivotal one for the Singapore men’s ice hockey team.

The squad flew off to Sapporo, Japan, early Friday morning (Feb 17) to take part in the Asian Winter Games (AWG) for the first time in their history as part of Singapore’s largest-ever contingent (22).

It is also their first international tournament apart from the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Challenge Cup of Asia (CCOA), an annual developmental tournament established in 2008.

Both competitions will serve as preparation for August’s SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, where winter sports will make its debut.

With the increased spotlight comes the opportunity to raise the sport’s profile, and Singapore Ice Hockey Federation (SIHF) president Alphonsus Joseph knows it.

“The SEA Games is the number one thing we are aiming for,” he told TODAY at Changi Airport prior to their departure. “Going for the AWG allows them to play at a high level and also to see teams like Japan and Korea, who are almost at world-class level. It will definitely be an eye-opener for most of the players.

“I think more people do know about ice hockey (now), but not many know there’s a national team or that there’s even an ice rink in Singapore.”

RESULTS NEEDED

Joseph, who became SIHA’s first local president when he took up the role in 2013, added that it is important for the team to show results in order to get more support.

“We first started the national team in 2008… and it’s always been self-funded,” said the 38-year-old, who works in the IT sector.  “We’ve been in talks with SNOC (Singapore National Olympic Council) and hopefully for the SEA Games, they will support us a bit.

“That’s a positive but again, we need to show them we can do something with the sport.”

Forward Ryan Tan, 18, added: “We didn’t really have good results in the past two years and hope to do better in upcoming tournaments; that will come with practice and getting more people in.”

Singapore’s best-ever CCOA finish was silver in Division I in 2015, which earned them promotion to the top division last year. However, they lost all four games – including 7-1 to SEA Games favourites Thailand – and finished bottom in 2016. They will drop back to Division I this March.

The other three SEA Games nations are Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines; the latter two are newly-formed.

Joseph, a former national player, noted the sport has come a long way from the early days where it was “just a bunch of people skating around”. There are currently around 200 local and 300 expatriate members and two annual leagues that run back-to-back, featuring close to 250 players.

CHALLENGES

But funding remains a critical obstacle. Hourly rental at The Rink at JCube, Singapore’s only Olympic-sized rink, can cost up to S$1,250. Each player pays around S$500 per month for training expense, on top of the S$2,500 to make the AWG.

Majority of the 18 other AWG nations have a full 23-man roster, but Singapore have only 18 as some could not afford the trip.

“We’ve been training since October, so that’s quite a lot of money for players to come out with, especially for some who are just starting a family or have other priorities,” said Joseph.

SNOC lends support in areas like logistics and sports science, and furnished the team with Team Singapore winter gear, but does not provide funding for the AWG as it is classified as a minor Games.

Ice-time is another issue, said captain Michael Loh. The rink is shared with the public, and the figure skating and speed skating national teams. The one-hour weekly training was increased to three or four weekly sessions in the last two months and these often take place at midnight, where cheaper slots are available.

“Sometimes we negotiate with the staff to give us five or 10 minutes more, and offer to close up for them,” said Loh, a 41-year-old property salesperson, who is one of the pioneering members of the team.

Tan, a Raffles Junior College student, added: “When you get home, you still need to do stretching; by the time I sleep, it’s around 2am or 3am,  and I have to get up at 6am for school. I try my best to stay awake in class, but it’s not easy. But it’s about time management and I feel I am coping well.”

STAYING THE COURSE

Assistant coach Sean Connors, who has been helping to coach the team for the past three years, is blown away by the commitment shown by his players.

“We always get 20, 25 guys out for practices and this is after a hard day… and having to get up early to go to work the next day,” said the 47-year-old physical education teacher. “You are never going to see this anywhere else in the world.”

The Canadian noted that the team has a strong defensive core but needs fresh blood to catch up with other teams in the region. Excluding 18-year-old duo Tan and Richard O’Brien, and 22-year-old Joshua Lee, the average age of the team is close to 34.

“Fitness has been a problem… especially where there’s a gruelling schedule,” he said. “By the time they get to the end of the week, they will be very, very tired.”

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There is hope, with a men’s youth national side started last year and due to take part in a tournament this September. A youth developmental programme is in place, while SIHA also hopes to convince schools to take up the sport.

Tan, who coaches the youth side, said: “When I started, I was the only local but now, we have a youth team… Three, four years from now, I think they will be much stronger after competing and building up together.”

Unranked in the world, Singapore lost 12-1 to Hong Kong (world No 44) in their AWG opener on Saturday (Feb 18). They are grouped with Chinese Taipei, Mongolia, Thailand and United Arab Emirates (46) in Division I, the middle of three divisions. Only top division teams (China, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea) are eligible for medals.

The going has been tough for them and is not likely to get any easier, but the players still plough on despite the challenges.

“Everybody wants ice hockey to grow. Maybe not for our generation, but for the next generation,” Loh asserted. “We are very passionate about it and I think that’s the key factor that keeps us going.”