By Andrew

Backed by the near-perfect goaltending of Thamida Kunthadapakorn, Thailand won the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s Asia and Oceania Championship (IIHF WAOC) with a 3-1 win over Iran in the gold-medal game Sunday in Bangkok. The eight-team tournament saw Kunthadapakorn surrender just one goal in 260 minutes of playing time while her teammates outscored the opposition by a whopping 51-3 margin. The final game was the only one in which the Thais didn’t score at least 11 goals.
Other countries competing in what was formerly known as the Challenge Cup of Asia included Singapore, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates, India, Kyrgyzstan, and Kuwait. Singapore won the bronze earlier in the day with a 3-1 win over India.
For Iran and Kyrgyzstan these were historic games, their first women’s participation under the IIHF umbrella. The tournament is particularly valuable to these nations which are not competing in an IIHF World Championship event but nonetheless gives them international experience and also helps prepare them for the Asia Winter Games which will next be played in Trojena, Saudi Arabia, in 2029.
The IIHF WAOC tournament started in 2010, and was won by China in that inaugural season. This year marked the second time Thailand won, the first coming in 2019, the last time the event was played before covid-19 forced the cancellation of hockey worldwide. It also marked the second time Thailand had hosted the event, and all 20 games were played at the Thailand International Ice Hockey Arena in Bangkok, which has the standard international dimensions of 60m x 30m. The explosion of hockey in Asia, and Thailand in particular, is further evident by the imminent opening of another rink, in Chiang Mai, about 700km north of Bangkok, this summer.
In the case of India, the team was coached by Canadian Darrin Harrold, and some 18 of the 20 players came from Ladakh, a region in the far north that is making a major push to develop hockey.
The winning Thais were also coached by a Canadian, Rory Rawlyk, while the players came from a national women’s league that has also made a push to promote hockey. And in Iran, their first rink opened four years ago, and the following year a women’s team was formed, mostly from Inline players. The Tehran Times covered the 2023 IIHF WAOC, an important symbol of respect for the emerging popularity of the game. In the United Arab Emirates, the team held a two-week training camp prior to the tournament, an event they hosted in 2019.
The tournament was played with two groups in vertical structure, the top four in Group A (Thailand, Singapore, Macau, UAE) and the lower-ranked four in Group B. The last two teams in Group B—Kyrgyzstan and Kuwait—didn’t qualify for the playoffs while the top two in A—Thailand and Singapore—automatically advanced to the semi-finals.
Key to Thailand’s win in the final game was holding tournament scoring leader, Fatemeh Esmaeili, in check. Although she led all players with a whopping 17 goals and 26 points in just five games, she was held pointless in the game for gold. At the other end, it was captain Thipwarintorn Yannakornthanapunt who led the way, scoring two goals in the third period to break a 1-1 tie and carry her team to victory. Incredibly, she also took 34 of the team’s 38 total faceoffs in the game, winning 19 (64 per cent).
Supitsara Thamma had given the Thais the early lead, but Zahra Rezaei Jafari tied the game for Iran midway through the second, setting the stage for Yannakornthanapunt’s heroics in the final period.
All in all, the Thai win was impressive and important, but the tournament was, in the bigger picture, indicative of an ever-growing development of the women’s game in the Far East and the evident sense that this growth is only just beginning.