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By Olympic Council of Asia

Macau, China, February 13, 2017: One of the big success stories of the Sapporo 2017 Asian Winter Games – even before they have started – is the growth of ice hockey around the continent. The eighth edition of the AWG – under the supervision of the Olympic Council of Asia – will run from February 19-26 in Sapporo, Japan, and the five sports include ice hockey for men and women.

The men’s event has attracted 19 teams, forcing organisers to create three separate competitions graded by ability, while six women’s teams will play a round-robin format. The total of 25 teams is 9 more than organising committee SAWGOC had been expecting at the start of preparations, and reflects the popularity of the sport in countries across the continent without ice and snow.

The tropical South East Asia region, for example, will be sending teams from Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, while the desert lands of Gulf states United Arab Emirates, Qatar,  and Independent Olympic Athletes, representing the suspended Kuwait Olympic Committee, will also take part.

Another of the lesser lights in the men’s draw is Macau, the former Portuguese enclave which is now a Special Administrative Region of China and one of the OCA’s 45 affiliated National Olympic Committees. Famous for its shimmering casinos and stretch limos transporting the high-rollers around town, Macau has another side to it – the more traditional, noisy and narrow streets of the older parts of the hilly city.

It is in an area such as this that the Future Bright Amusement Park is located, with a McDonald’s to one side and a roadside temple with burning, fragrant incense coils to the other. A few paces up the road there is a small park where the older Chinese sit in the winter sunshine with their cage birds and the younger Chinese with their cellphones.

On an ice rink measuring 19 metres x 28 metres – about one third the size of an Olympic standard rink – half a dozen youths skate away the afternoon as red lanterns and Chinese New Year “God of Fortune” decorations dangle from the ceiling. The scene will change in the evening, however, when Macau’s men’s ice hockey team will fill the arena for a final local practice after recent training sessions over the border in Shenzhen, southern China.

“We have been preparing for the Sapporo Asian Winter Games for a few months already,” says Winston Chan, the team manager and President of the Macau Ice Sports Federation. “For the last month we have been going over to Shenzhen every Friday, Saturday and Sunday to practise on a regular ice rink.

The players are very happy and excited to be going to Sapporo, and they have been following their own individual fitness programmes off the ice.” The 22-strong squad includes architects, firemen, policemen, students and, inevitably, casino workers, and Macau will play Malaysia, Turkmenistan, Indonesia and Iran in Group B of the 9-team Men’s Division II, the lowest grade of the competition.

“We want to be in the top two of our group so we can challenge for a prize,” added team manager Chan. According to team official John Ng, who is Secretary General of the Macau Ice Sports Federation, there are around 120 ice hockey players in Macau, comprised of almost 40 senior players, 60 children and 12-15 female players.

“We are trying to get enough players to make a women’s team, but at the moment we can enter only the men’s competition at the Asian Winter Games,” he said. “This will be our second time at the Asian Winter Games after playing at Changchun, China, in 2007.”

Regarding the growth of ice hockey around the continent, team manager Chan credits the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) for a well-funded development program, along with the number of recreational ice rinks springing up in shopping malls. “There are two new ice rinks in Singapore, one in the Philippines, three in Malaysia…all standard size,” he said.

“Since 2009, the IIHF has been developing the sport in Asia and hosting seminars in Finland and in Harbin, China for the coaches to learn and go back and teach the kids. The Asian countries are growing now in ice hockey and developing at a good rate.” An entry of 26 teams for the Sapporo 2017 Asian Winter Games is proof of this.