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Hockey nights in Bangkok
Vancouver and the Winter Olympics may be half a world away, but in Bangkok there's an unlikely but thriving ice hockey scene
Every Sunday night, in a scenario more reminiscent of Montreal or Stockholm than Bangkok, a dedicated group of foreigners and locals brave the cold to strap on skates and take part in the unlikeliest game in town: ice hockey.
The game has actually been around here for decades but is only recently catching on among Thais. Ice rinks have existed in Bangkok since the 1970s, and the local expat ice hockey outfit, the Flying Farangs, (‘farang’ is the Thai slang word for foreigner) was formed in 1994. Yet most of the emphasis was on “shinny,” or informal pickup hockey at sub-standard local rinks, with the occasional tournament abroad. Equipment, when it could be found, was strictly second hand or smuggled in as carry-on luggage from Canada. Most Thais had never even heard of the game. And it goes without saying that there were never enough goalies.
Things changed in 2003 when two Flying Farangs, American Scott Whitcomb and Canadian Scott Murray, founded the Thai World Hockey League (TWHL). Consisting today of four teams and approximately 60 players, the Bangkok-based league boasts a professional sheen with a handful of cheering fans, computerized scoring and stat keeping, corporate sponsors, custom uniforms and rock music blasting between face offs. (See above gallery.)
It’s a long way from Bangkok hockey’s previous incarnation at a half-sized foggy rink at the Imperial Lad Phrao shopping mall.
“The big ice brings out the better players,” says Scott Murray of the TWHL’s current home at Imperial Samrong, a mall east of Bangkok. The rink is roughly equal in size to that used in international play, a distinct advantage for the league’s European players. Not surprisingly, Scandinavians have come to have a significant influence on the quality of Bangkok hockey in recent years, with Swedes and Finns being among the most numerous and skilled players in the league.
More Thais getting on the ice
Not surprisingly, Canadians also form a significant part of the TWHL, though Thai players currently make up half of the league and have likely benefited the most from the increased organization and level of play.
“The Thai players definitely have improved since the inception of the league,” explains Scott Whitcomb. “In the past there was a lot of individual play, but now they have learned how important it is to work as a team and move the puck to each other.”
The influx of skilled foreign players and the competitive regimen of the TWHL have likewise had a positive impact on the Thai national ice hockey team -- an entity few Thais know exists. Swede Reine Rauhala, a veteran of both the Swedish professional league and the TWHL, coached the national team for a brief stint in 2009, during which the Thais placed second in the Asia Challenge Cup in Abu Dhabi.
“The players were very serious about developing their game,” explains Ruahala. “I trained really hard and no one was complaining. They were all smiling and happy because they said it was first time they had a real coach.”
In 2006 the Thais won the Asian division of the Land of Smiles Classic, the Bangkok-based annual tournament hosted by the Flying Farangs that has raised money for local charities and drawn teams from as far as Finland. However, in sanctioned international play, Thailand has struggled to compete with more experienced Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, to whom the national team suffered a humiliating 52-1 defeat in the 2007 Asian Winter Games.
Yet despite all the indications of a golden age of ice hockey in Bangkok, some still remain skeptical that the sport will grow in popularity.
“Thai people are not surprised any more when I say that I play ice hockey,” explains Krit ‘Top’ Rutthapong, a Bangkok native and 22-year veteran of local hockey. “But it’s still not popular. It's not easy to see games on TV or at the rink.”
The Thai World Hockey League runs from September to April. Games are held every Sunday from 8:30-10:30pm at Imperial Samrong, and spectators are welcome. For more information on the TWHL, contact Scott Whitcomb at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shinny, or pickup hockey is played on Wednesday nights from 9:30pm and players of all skill level are welcome. Bangkok’s annual tournament, the Land of Smiles Classic, is held in October. For more information about the Flying Farangs, visit www.flyingfarangs.com.