The art of 'aerial ice hockey' is being perfected in Hong Kong

First played by the indigenous people of North America, the game has taken hold in the city

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 April, 2014, 10:40pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 April, 2014, 10:40pm

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, two men take to a soccer pitch with chalk, tape measure and string. 

Ten minutes pass while they carefully mark the field in preparation for a game of lacrosse - one of those major North American sports you have probably never heard of and played only by a handful of diehards in the city.

Admittedly, Hong Kong's performance in the sport until recently has not been worth knowing about, let alone having a pre-marked field. Until now.

When I heard lacrosse was being played in Hong Kong, my initial response was 'really?'
Scott Browning

This weekend the Hong Kong lacrosse team are testing their mettle against squads from around Asia in the invitational Hong Kong Open. And with a recent - and first - win in the Singha tournament last October in Thailand, expectations are high.

The tournament celebrates 20 years of the sport in Hong Kong. It also marks a turning point, as the team prepare for the 2014 Lacrosse World Championships in Denver in July, where the 23-strong squad will carry Hong Kong's renewed hopes for the sport on their shoulders.

The appearance will not be the first time Hong Kong compete internationally in lacrosse; a team have represented the region in the tournament three times in the past 12 years.

Yet, while the sport has flourished worldwide, expanding from six teams at the inaugural world championship in 2003 to 38 this year, Hong Kong have not exactly distinguished themselves, placing 22nd out of 30 squads the last time they competed, which was in 2010.

This time, things will be different, says Scott Browning.

Browning is the newly appointed head coach of the Hong Kong Lacrosse Association (administering a league of a mere 180 male and female players), charged with transforming a rag-tag team of mainly local university students into a world-class team to take to Denver.

With a coaching résumé brimming with 40 years of playing and coaching, including representing Team Canada at the 1990 world championships, Browning has the credentials to make magic happen.

"When I heard lacrosse was being played in Hong Kong, my initial response was 'really?' says Browning, 56, who works in government administration.

However, convinced this was a great opportunity to develop his beloved sport in Asia, he took the post.

Under his remote guidance - he is based in Canada coaching from afar and visits Hong Kong regularly for tournaments and training weekends - the team have rapidly improved.

"Nine months ago, it was pretty obvious to me the team had a lot to work on, skills and fitness-wise," Browning says.

"This is a running sport, and their fitness wasn't up to scratch to begin with. But they've been working really hard since then and we've come quite a way. Their lacrosse IQ is also really developing … and we've still got three months," he adds optimistically.

The difference in the team is tangible among the players. When 18-year-old American student Mack Craighead started playing in Hong Kong two years ago, the sport was a "bit disorganised", he readily admits.

"But it's very good lacrosse now," says Craighead, who studies at the Hong Kong International School and has been playing since third grade.

"When we went to Thailand in October 2012 we did not do well, to say the least. Fast-forward a year - practices, teams, try-outs - and we blew the tournament away. It was totally different," says an enthusiastic Craighead. He is one of just four of the 23 players who do not hold Hong Kong passports, required to be in compliance with world championship regulations.

"I'm excited about this tournament. Besides Japan, I think it's possible, and definitely one of our goals, to be top in Asia."

Why now? And what's behind the dramatic improvement?

Cash - and it seems, a lot of it. Private donations by a local passionate lacrosse player of Taiwanese descent, who came to love the sport during his time studying in the US, has transformed the sport here in the past year.

The investment has bolstered the sport with much needed resources, like top-ranked coach Browning, development officer Jordan Wong, much-needed (and expensive) kit, a sports psychologist to assist with focus and composure, and a sports physiotherapist.

For Louis Hou, who founded HKLA 20 years ago, finally being able to watch a team two decades in the making play in Denver will be a dream come true.

"It's my baby," explains Hou, 42, for whom lacrosse has been a lifelong passion. "I remember when I started playing. I thought lacrosse was so cool … it was so fast, it was like warriors with a stick.

"But without resources, the game hasn't been able to grow. I tried to lobby for lacrosse fields from the government and private investors for a long time, but there was no interest.

"I can see lacrosse is this great sport where Hong Kong people can actually go to the world championships. Can you imagine it, 38 teams from around the world playing over three days? It's a way for people in Hong Kong to see the world."

For Andy Yip Wai-fung, 24, taking part in the world championships in a sport he took up only five years ago is a "story for the grandchildren".

"I could never have imagined going to the world championships. Because I'm skinny I was just hoping on building some muscles," he jokes. "It's a dream come true," says Yip, a philosophy student at University of Hong Kong.

Captain Joey Au-Yeung Chun-yu, 25, survives on a few hours' sleep a night to cram in training, apart from the hours in the studio required of an HKU architecture student. He describes the sport as "ice hockey in the air".

"Weekdays after training, I go back to the studio and work. If I'm lucky, I'll get to sleep at 5am, if not I'll spend the whole night up ... I average only three to four hours a night sleeping."

For the oldest player in the team, Leung Yau-chi, 38, Denver will be his fourth world championships, and the continuing effort is well worth it.

"It's a major part of my life - family, my work and lacrosse. In fact, I put lacrosse ahead of my work.

"This is the best team we've put forward," says the architect, who also studied at HKU. "'We are finally playing to a system; we are more cohesive. And with Scott, it's made a big difference."

But while these players have their eyes firmly fixed on Denver, Browning is looking long-term to keep the legacy of Hong Kong's lacrosse alive and flourishing. He plans to expand the local tournament to increase the talent pool and eventually develop a youth programme.

"It's not all about the world champs; it's about growing the game, getting more participation and providing the opportunity for youth to play the game, and through all that, the quality of your players will increase.

"I have a passion for growing the game internationally," adds the lacrosse veteran. "It's in my blood."

And with its current funding, focus and a bit of luck, it will hopefully be in Hong Kong's too.