By Joeri Loonen – IIHF.com
For a country that is best known for its tropical islands and virtually untouched by winter, playing ice hockey seems to be limited to video games. However, with four rinks in the country and recent admission as a new associate member of the International Ice Hockey Federation, the Philippines is destined to add another chapter to what many believed was Mission Impossible.
The Philippines is a country in Southeast Asia consisting of over 7,000 islands and with a population of 105 million people. Ice is locally best known to put on cones or to refresh drinks with but not to skate on.
Nevertheless there are 211 players from five clubs registered in the Philippines where four ice rinks can be used, the main one being the SM Mall of Asia Ice Skating Rink in Pasay City next to the capital of Manila. The other ice rinks are at Megamall, Southmall and the Seaside Cebu Ice Skating Rink.
IIHF.com’s Joeri Loonen learned more about the past and future of ice hockey in the country and talked with Tournament Director Francois Gautier and training and development manager Carl Montano.
“Originally I only came back for vacation to attend my mom’s wedding,” Montano, a Surrey, British Columbia native, explains. “I learned that my niece was playing ice hockey here so I came here to train along to be in shape for the playoffs back home in Canada. Not long after they asked me to stay and offered me the position of head coach. With being involved in hockey always having been a dream of me, I decided to accept the offer and jump right into it. Within three weeks I was back and have only visited Canada for holidays since.”
Gautier was born and raised in the Philippines and started playing on one of the few indoor rinks. “It was really unorganized at the time. I was not wearing a visor, mouth and neck guard playing against guys that could barely skate,” he remembers. After finishing his studies in France his appetite for the game hadn’t gone lost but he learned not much had changed in Manila and decided to help out organizing things himself. “I noticed a lot of people were demanding a lot but did not want to move a finger. I stepped in and moved more than a finger and here we are now, doing all the organizational and managerial tasks and managing tournaments for the Philippines Ice Hockey Federation.”
With no neighbouring country big in the sport, the Philippines had developed its own style of hockey. It took Montano a while to get used to how hockey was being played and he slowly started to make adjustments.
“Typically they play more offensively than defensively here. Before I arrived, all coaches were only focused on scoring goals so there were hardly any defencemen on the team. I’ve been trying to introduce a more North-American style play of hockey, building from the back out,” explains Montano. “My teams slowly but surely bought into the concept especially when results started to follow. Now we are no longer the team everybody wanted to play because of a sure victory but they are afraid to play us because we can compete.”
Back in those days there was no organized leagues yet. The teams played pickup games and were primarily formed out of expats. The Philippines did participate in regional invitational tournaments but rather than being an official national team it was an exclusive selection of club players.
Things started in 2008.
“We noted the pickup games were gaining more attention and people were fighting for spots. With that increase we felt with some better organization we could start up a formal ice hockey league and federation,” Montano remembers.
With a federation (FIHL) in place, the focus on establishing a true national team also became more viable. Gautier found out that it wasn’t as easy as just selecting the best players. “To actually call it a national team, you need to have everyone involved and look at every player available. So having a federation that unites every group was a very big step,” says Gautier, who also had to deal with resistance.
“There’s always people that are all talk and no action and there were hidden agendas and money matters that we had to cope with, but you are never going to make everyone happy. There will always be people that think they can do a better job.”
Receiving IIHF membership is considered a major milestone. Alongside this recognition the federation also received membership of the Philippines Olympic Committee and as such the national team can apply to participate in official international tournaments like the Challenge Cup of Asia and the Southeast Asian Games.
“Exciting times are ahead of us and it was certainly worth the ride. This will give us the opportunity to gain exposure locally and internationally which is something we are really in need for,” Gautier explains.
“The way things work here In the Philippines is pretty simple: When you’re known, you’re going to get help, when you’re not known… good luck. Then you can be knocking on all the doors but they probably turn out to be walls for you.”
And help is needed. Even though the sport’s is gaining popularity, ice hockey remains a very expensive sport in a country where the average income is around $300 a month.
On average, players practice twice a week at a cost of $20 to cover for the ice rent. That prorates to over a $1000 annually which is still excluding the costs of transportation, gear and costs for participating in international tournaments in countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.
With the national ice skating union mainly focusing on figure skating, a sport the Philippines has a local hero in Michael Christian Martinez, who has made his way to the most recent Olympic Winter Games, Montano and Gautier are looking for other means to reduce the cost of playing.
FIHL president Christopher Sy is trying to reach out to his connections within other corporations and is now noticing that with the international recognition, the federation is being taken more serious. “Furthermore we are looking to open up international contacts, for example to get gear from abroad. We have had talks with the Canadian ambassador here to see if he can help out with someone who can help us provide hockey gear,” reveals Montano.
“Other ideas exist as well,” Gautier adds in. “We would like to organize a hockey day. If we can get sponsors to cover for a full day of ice rent, we could organize clinics and free access to the sport for free; whether rich or poor. We can provide them with some sticks and helmets and introduce them to the sport and teach them some basics.”
The national team players, although far from having reached domestic celebrity status, would be available for a meet-and-greet in order for the kids to team up with a real ice hockey player. One thing that would draw national attention surely would be the presence of a real NHL player, especially when of Filipino descent.
“People here are very America-oriented in sports. However if we could get Matt Dumba here to provide a few clinics that could be a game breaker for ice hockey in the Philippines,” Montano aspires.
Currently a player of the Minnesota Wild, Dumba is the only player with Filipino roots that has made it to the NHL and could serve as the ideal role model for Philippine kids who are interested in playing ice hockey.
Montano and Gautier are noticing that the domestic interest in the game is growing. “Ever since the news broke out that we were admitted to the IIHF, a lot of people start signing up. In the past it was hard to get people to practice now it’s hard to get them off the ice,” Gauthier jokes.
“We now have provided the kids something to look forward to. Instead of playing invitational tournaments only, we are now able to send a Team Philippines to the SEA games in Malaysia next year for the first time in history,” knows Montano. “In 2019 the SEA games will be here in the Philippines and our kids would love to be part of that. If we can do a good job in Malaysia, we will provide great exposure for 2019. We can compete against anyone in that competition so gold is within reach.”
Rather than to scour the globe for players with a Philippine passport, the FIHL is aiming to build from within.
“There is great belief in the players that brought IIHF membership to our country. They went through the hard part and it would be discouraging and disheartening if we’d now suddenly replace them with guys from abroad,” believes Montano.
Gautier nods in agreement.
With limited funds available, the goals are clearly long term. “We are focusing on youth and development. We don’t have an established top to bottom supply of players, so we need to start getting more kids playing hockey in order to build a strong core of players that can play at the senior international level in the future,” says Gautier.
It required a lot of persistence and hurdles to overcome in the last decade to get where Philippines ice hockey is today. The work is not done yet though.
Gautier: “We want the kids something to drive for. Having the opportunity to represent the country and hit the ice with the national flag on their jersey is a huge but now realistic goal to achieve.”
The next couple of years are not just about getting results and winning medals and trophies. The targets are far beyond that.
“Perhaps if the opportunity is there, one or two import players will be added, but the idea is to keep it as home-grown as possible. We are not working for the next two to five years but want to sustain the sport for years to come here in the Philippines.”