Lords of the rink

Although it's an unlikely sport for a hot climate, ice hockey has taken off so quickly in Hong Kong that more facilities are needed, writes Rachel Jacqueline

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2012, 7:02pm

The crowd gasps as the ice hockey player lunges towards the sliding puck, his stick almost colliding with another player's head. Seconds later, his opponent slams him against the barricade in retort, squashing his face against the glass. Before the imprint fades, the pair are already at the other end of the rink, fighting it out for the elusive puck.

It's a scene that's become a regular occurrence at Mega Ice in MegaBox, Kowloon Bay, which installed Hong Kong's first and only international sized rink in 2007. Since then, the Hong Kong Ice Hockey League (HKL) has almost doubled in size - the new 2012/13 season started in late September, and will run until April next year.

In fact, the sport has grown so popular and so quickly that it has almost become a victim of its own success, with the existing facilities at MegaBox stretched to capacity.

There are now more than 1,000 players across a women's, youth and three men's divisions in the HKL. And there's about 200 more players in the Hong Kong Amateur Hockey Club (HKAHC) league.

Even though Hongkongers are more likely to own a pair of sandals than ice skates, locals have taken to the sport in numbers. While the top HKL division attracts mainly expatriates, about half the number of players in the other divisions in the men's and women's league - and the HKAHC league - are Hong Kong Chinese. "Once people start ice skating and do well, they get into hockey," says Keith Fong, 37, deputy general manager of operations at the MegaBox Ice Rink.

The growth has been a result of a conscious effort by the ice hockey community to develop players. "More programmes are in place these days which have given kids an opportunity to learn the sport," says Fong. "Clubs such as the Penguins, which is organised by Mega Ice, as well as the Typhoons Ice Hockey Club, have spent hours organising practices and league games."

Ice hockey has been played in Hong Kong since the 1980s, says Fong, who is a hockey player himself. But the sport only really began properly in 1996 with four teams at a small rink at Dragon Centre, Sham Shui Po. Today, there are 88 teams in the HKL alone.

"It's a complete adrenaline rush," says Frankie Choi, 28, a coach and referee who has been playing ice hockey since age eight. Jacob Marcus, 26, an American research analyst who moved to Hong Kong early this year, says: "It takes a perfect combination of speed and finesse, as well as athletic talent. Plenty of people are skaters, and plenty are athletic, but how many can be both at the same time?"

Played indoors, and always in cool temperatures, ice hockey perhaps is an ideal sport for Hongkongers looking to get fit and have fun any time of the year without having to worry about the weather or the pollution.

The game involves intense skating, explosive movements, quick changes in velocity and direction, and frequent body contact. So ice hockey players require high levels of muscular strength, power and endurance, and a very healthy cardiovascular system.

The technical skills of skating, shooting, passing, and body checking are just as important as physical strength. Agility, balance and co-ordination are fundamental to these skills, and therefore to game tactics and strategies, too. Ice hockey is a total body workout.

Success in the sport depends largely on fitness. A study of more than 200 elite female ice hockey players from 13 countries, published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research in June, found that players from the best performing teams were leaner, had greater lower body muscular power and upper body strength, and a higher aerobic capacity than those in the lower divisions.

But even if success doesn't come, ice hockey is great fun. Marcus sees the sport as a way to relax and make new friends. "Hockey players are a specific type of person, and we all love hanging out together," he says.

He has played ice hockey in the US, Canada, and Sweden, and is impressed with the quality of hockey on offer in Hong Kong. "The level and organisation here are top-notch," he says. "Players of all abilities get to play at least once a week, and there are some great tournaments within the region." Hong Kong is home to Asia's largest ice hockey tournament, the Hong Kong Hockey 5s. This year 88 teams from 14 countries, including Canada, Australia, Slovakia, and United Arab Emirates, competed. Brad Smith, 37, an ex-Canadian NHL player, was among the participants. He says the standard in Hong Kong represents a "competitive recreational hockey game". The punch-ups famous in the NHL are non-existent in Hong Kong's local non-contact league.

Jamie Stark, 36, a teacher from Canada, says the tournaments and ice hockey leagues are why he moved to Hong Kong from Korea, despite taking a pay cut. "If I didn't have hockey, I may be living somewhere else," he says.

Although more want to join in the fun, the HKL can no longer accept any more players because of the limited facilities. "We would have more players, but we are maxed out, as there is limited ice time," says Fong.

Ice hockey shares a single international-sized ice skating rink with figure skating and recreational skating, so the cost of play is considerable. To play in the league costs players upwards of HK$5,000. And due to the stretched resources, games are played as late as 11pm.

According to Stark, the cost of playing is three times the amount he would pay back home. "We don't have an option," he says. "As with anything you miss from back home, you will pay much more for it."

"We call it a luxury sport," jokes Grant Phillips, 43, of Canada, a coach for Hong Kong's women's hockey team and a referee. "For soccer and baseball, you only need running shoes, a ball and a bat. But for hockey, you need a lot more."

Essential equipment includes a pair of skates, protective clothing, helmets, and a stick. The initial investment for a new player would be upwards of HK$10,000 - that's if they can find a place to buy their hockey equipment.

For years, players had to rely on teammates returning to Europe or North America to bring back gear. This led Phillips to create his own line of ice hockey equipment, Monster, which is available at a fraction of the cost. The brand is now the most popular among Hong Kong players.

Gregory Smith, 44, who helped to develop South China's first professional ice hockey league, the Central Interior Hockey League, believes the potential for the sport in Hong Kong is huge. "Hong Kong really only has 10 to 15 years of solid hockey history - and there is only one real facility for skating," he says. "It's come a long way in such a short space of time, compared to countries which have 100 to 150 years of hockey history."

But without another international size rink, some more seating to encourage a fan base, and a more affordable entry into the sport, the growth will be capped. In the meantime, diehard fans like Stark will continue to play their favourite game, despite the odds. "Hockey is our life. It's our passion; our religion," Stark says.