Sun, Nov 07, 2004 - Page 23 News List

Interest in hockey action heats up in unlikely location

AP , BANGKOK, THAILAND

In tropical Thailand, ice and sticks are most commonly found together in a tall glass holding a colorful cocktail.

But despite Bangkok's scorching temperatures, ice hockey is attracting a dedicated following among homesick expats and curious locals. The country has an amateur league and even a Thai National Team.

Over the past week, Bangkok has hosted the 10th edition of the international Bangkok Ice Hockey Tournament, attracting more than 200 competitors, many of whom travelled halfway round the world to crash and bang on the ice rather work on their tan.

The tournament featured teams from Russia, Canada, Switzerland, and Saudi Arabia, mixing it with Asian outfits from Japan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia for four days of high-caliber hockey reminiscent of that played in Europe and North America.

The regular Thai-World Hockey League has also proven a success after launching its inaugural season in September. The league comprises some 60 players -- half of which are Thai.

The TWHL is made up mainly of has-beens and never-will-bees who simply can't get the game out of their system, even in the tropics. The competition's biggest name is one Sheldon Bailey, formerly of the International Hockey League's San Diego Gulls.

But regardless of background or skill, players hailing from California to Massachusetts, British Columbia to Newfoundland -- along with a handful of Europeans -- lace up the blades and hit the ice twice a week to get their hockey fix.

"It's a wild experience playing hockey in Thailand," says TWHL Commissioner Scott Whitcomb, originally from Appleton, Wisconsin. "Expats are pumped that they can play the game they love despite being far away from home."

The sport is making quite an impact on local players as well.

Vanchalerm Rattapong, star player on the Thai national team, resolved to become a hockey player after watching Canada's Mario Lemieux score his memorable series-clinching goal against the Soviet Union in the 1987 Canada Cup.

With a laser-beam shot and blazing speed, Vanchalerm is known as the "Jaromir Jagr of Thailand." And for him, hockey is more than just a game.

"It is a very important part of my life," he says. "I work so I can afford to play hockey."

While Bangkok is becoming known as Southeast Asia's ``hockey town,'' the sport's development here hasn't been without hiccups.

The game was almost shut down before it got off the ground when Bangkok's main rink closed in 2000. Many players balked at the next best venue, which resembled a swimming pool more than a skating surface.

Notorious for their violent outbursts, the east-meets-west hockey rivalry between Thai and expatriate teams in the early days also threatened to bench the game permanently. A spiteful stick-swinging incident left a foreigner's, head bloodied, and a bench-clearing brawl ended with a Thai player's arm fractured.

"It was like a war out there," recalls Toronto native Scott Murray, player-coach of the Flying Farangs team. Farang is the general Thai term for westerners. "The Thais wanted to beat us. And of course, we always wanted to win."

Murray worked to keep the game alive and recruited players from hockey-playing nations to inject the necessary lifeblood.

But the biggest boost arrived in November 2003 when Bangkok's Central World Plaza overcame its fear of flying pucks and dropped its long-standing policy of banning the game from its rink. Thai hockey now had a pristine, Olympic-sized ice surface. It was game on.

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