By Martin Merk –

For the first time in the 58-year-old history of the Southeast Asian Games ice hockey will be included in the 29th edition of the multi-sport event that starts with tomorrow’s opening ceremony in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

With the historic addition of three winter sports disciplines – ice hockey, figure skating and short track speed skating – the 29th Southeast Asian Games will include 47 sports. All ice sports will be played at the new Malaysia National Ice Skating Stadium (MYNISS). The international-size ice rink opened in time for the SEA Games at the yet-to-be-completed Empire City mall in the Damansara area located next to Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya.

Although the ice rink is built in a mall, it’s not just one of many small rinks surrounded by shops as they exist throughout the continent. The ice sheet is 60 on 30 meters big, the rink has four big dressing rooms, rooms for officials and coaches, a jumbotron and a seating capacity for 700 spectators according to Susan Loh, the General Secretary of the Malaysia Ice Hockey Federation.

“It’s definitely a big step for us. We’ve been looking forward to the completion of the ice rink and for the big games. It’s fantastic because we have a lot of support from the mall owner. They are so supportive also for the SEA Games,” Loh said. “We are looking into hosting IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia events there too.”

Malaysia became an IIHF member in 2006 and championships have been played since 2000 in the country. The ice rink at the Sunway Pyramid mall in Petaling Jaya south of Kuala Lumpur, with an ice sheet of 39 on 22.5 meters, has been the most used rink for ice hockey in the country for many years until the opening of the new full-size facility.

11 countries from Southeast Asia take part in the SEA Games including five in the first-ever ice hockey tournament. Thailand has had ice hockey the longest joining the IIHF in 1989 and had the best results in Asian tournaments from the region. Host Malaysia and neighboring island city-state Singapore have also been competing in regional IIHF tournaments for many years. Indonesia and the Philippines joined the IIHF one year ago in time for the event and had their first national team games in the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia and the Asian Winter Games respectively.

“Ice hockey is growing very well in the Southeast Asian countries. We have five countries with a population of almost 500 million and ice hockey will definitely grow much bigger in the future,” Loh said.

While these five teams have played each other before, doing so at this traditional biennial event that started in 1959 lifts ice hockey into a welcome spotlight.

“To be in the SEA Games is very historic and most of the countries are very excited about this and I hope in the future there will be more countries in the SEA Games in ice hockey. The SEA Games is a very huge event in Southeast Asia and it will definitely change things,” Loh said.

“We have Indonesia and the Philippines as new countries in the IIHF. Ice hockey is being played in Cambodia and Vietnam too so it helps promote hockey in new countries where the SEA Games will be held in the future. But it takes time to promote hockey in your country and build facilities. In Indonesia for example it worked out and the Philippines have had hockey for quite some time and there have been leaders who have been developing ice hockey in these countries so we hope the same can happen in other countries like Cambodia and Vietnam.”

First ice hockey activities have started in Cambodia recently with locals and expats from North America and Europe playing at the Aeon Mall ice rink in the capital of Phnom Penh, which is about 1,000 square metres big.

In Vietnam ice hockey games have been played since 2014 at the Vincom Mega Mall Royal City in Hanoi and recently there have been first ice hockey activities in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand are the countries foreseen for the next four editions of the Southeast Asian Games.

Another way of expansion could be to add a women’s hockey tournament at the next event. Recently some of the Southeast Asian countries have for the first time formed women’s national teams.

“It is the plan for the SEA Games to have a women’s tournament too. Women’s hockey is growing fast in Southeast Asia and we will try to include the women. We already have the first experiences thanks to the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia,” Loh said.

In addition, the ice hockey associations in the region will start the Southeast Asian Youth Cup that will be played first time in September in Malaysia with U15 teams to help develop the sport for young players.

And what about the expectations on the ice? In the recent Challenge Cup of Asia events, Malaysia was third in Southeast Asia behind Thailand and Singapore, although newcomer Philippines had a fulminant debut at the 2017 Asian Winter Games last February.

“We are looking at being a medal contender,” said Loh but added that every country is very competitive in the five-team round-robin tournament that will be played 20-24 August. But the new facility, bigger than the rink used until now in Selangor, can help making ice hockey more popular.

“We have now the facility and would be happy to host bigger tournaments in Malaysia. We have new ice rinks coming up including one in the south in Johor that is expected to be ready by the end of the year,” said Loh while with the new facility and its leagues the Malaysian Ice Hockey Federation is now working on fulfilling the minimum participation standards to enter the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program. Last season 14 teams played in three divisions.

The next dream would be to play or even host the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Qualification. But first Malaysia and the other four countries involved will for the first time become part of the Southeast Asian Games starting with the opening ceremony with athletes from many other sports.

On Sunday, one day of the official opening ceremony, there will be an opening ceremony for winter sports at the Malaysia National Ice Skating Stadium. Royalty will be on site with the Crown Prince (Raja Muda) of Perlis, Tuanku Syed Faizuddin Putra Ibni Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Jamalullail, and his wife, Crown Princess Tuanku Lailatul Shahreen Akashah Khalil. Ambassadors from traditional ice hockey countries Canada, Finland, Sweden and the United States are announced as well. The national anthem Negarakku will be performed by the Kuen Cheng Brass Band before speeches from Malaysian Ice Hockey Federation President Dato Lee Hwa Beng and IIHF Vice President Thomas Wu followed by a ceremonial puck drop and performances.

Host Malaysia will open the ice hockey tournament at 16:00 with the first game against Indonesia while Thailand vs. Singapore at 20:00 will be the second game. The Philippines enter the round-robin tournament on the second day against Indonesia.