IT'S Thursday night at the Sky Rink and the near-deserted mall echoes to the swooshing sound of skates on ice. Nothing odd in that. But what's that clack, clack noise? And why all the shouting? Approaching rinkside from the foodcourt at Shamshuipo's Dragon Centre, all becomes clear. Ten brightly-garbed, stick-wielding gladiators are going at it with gusto, whacking a rubber puck up and down the ice - hence the clack, clack of rubber puck caroming off the perimeter boards. Welcome to the Budweiser South China Ice Hockey League. Once a week, on Thursday, it's game day in the month-old competition. Enthusiasts all, the players hold a wide variety of day jobs - including an airline pilot, civil engineer, lawyer, marketing man, teacher, Canto-pop record producer and a journalist. Macau-based newspaperman Greg Heakes typifies the commitment and passion of this highly-organised group of hockey lovers - he travels from the Portuguese enclave for every game. 'It's a long commute but no longer than when I lived in Sai Kung and we used to practise in Tsuen Wan,' says Heakes. 'When you get to the rink and play hockey it's like escaping to a little bit of 'Canadiana' for a couple of hours. It's like being home again.' Home for Heakes is Vancouver. Many of the Bud Leaguers hail from North America - places as diverse as Seattle and Toronto, Fox Creek (Alberta) and Saskatoon (Saskatchewan) crop up on the resumes. But there are plenty of local born-and-bred players, too, most of whom belong to the Can-Star Association run by Jim Chi-on. With the advent of the league now, Can-Star players have joined ranks with the mostly expat Can-Am Ice Hockey Association. After 10 years of purely recreational games and three years experience of running an International Five-A-Side tournament, the two associations decided to go for a more competitive edge. Budweiser's backing made the league possible as the beer giants covered the relatively expensive costs of rink hire. Each of the four teams in the league is also company-backed, producing league standings which read: LA Cafe, Santa Fe, Dharmala Jets and Planet Hollywood. The action on this particular night is provided by LA Cafe and Dharmala. All players provide their own gear. For expats, that can mean shipping over prized skates, stick, headgear and pads. Local players have one choice - to shop at the only ice sports supplier in town. Each team has a set roster of players, except goaltenders who are rotated from team to team, and even change teams at half-time in the same game. This is in the interests of fairness because the quality varies so much. In typical Hong Kong fashion, most things about the league are condensed: five men per team, not six; a three-quarters size rink; limited use of the icing rule; and minimal physical contact in the sport which is epitomised by gloves-off brawling. 'The rink was designed for figure skating and the boards are not made for checking into,' explained LA Cafe captain Tom Barnes, who works at STAR TV. 'We prefer to emphasise the skill aspects of the game and most guys don't want hard checking because they have to go to work the next day.' 'I'd say most of us are operating at 85 per cent aggression,' says Dharmala's Mark Neis, an engineer on the Chek Lap Kok airport project. Nevertheless, that doesn't prevent a few incidents of physical contact. In the LA Cafe v Dharmala game, Barnes and opponent Nelson Eschleman both ended up in the penalty box for unrelated minor offences. And Can-Am president Shane Weir, playing for LA Cafe, pushed the envelope of the competitive spirit by letting rip with a verbal outburst such as he wouldn't use in his everyday dealings as a lawyer. The Sky Rink is squeezed in to a corner of the shopping complex. And there can't be many teams in the world who play their hockey beneath a miniature suspended railway but the Bud Leaguers do - the bright yellow tracks of the Dragon Train from the adjacent kiddies' playland run over their heads. All the trappings are there, albeit in scaled-down form. The proper kits (with shoulder pads optional), the penalty box, the goals - even the Zamboni machine for scraping and relaying the ice surface at half-time. The only thing missing is an organ for the sound effects. 'The rink management sourced the nets and goals although we had to customise them with a bit of welding and a bolt to fix them in the floor,' said Jim Wong, a marketing executive by day and captain of the Dharmala Jets by night, who grew up playing hockey in Toronto. 'We have put padding round the hot spots of the rink where the puck gets shot a lot. The management have been very responsive to our needs. They installed doors in the perimeter. That helps with shift changes.' The shift changes are swift, noisy and colourful as three, four or more players come zooming on and off the ice to effect substitutions while play goes on. The league even has a MAP (Most Admired Player) in Eschleman who works for the Securities and Futures Commission and is introduced to you by everyone as 'the guy who scored the winning goal in the last international tournament'. Praise from teammates and opponents focuses on Eschleman's 'intensity'. Hailing from Fox Creek, Alberta, Eschleman - an early front-runner for the league scoring title with three goals and three assists in his first game - suits up for Dharmala. 'It's a little different game here. There are fewer guys, the ice is smaller and there's no checking. That all makes for an even faster game,' he says. He's right. The speed of play is breathtaking. With only two dozen onlookers at the foodcourt it's easy to get a close-up view of the puck-handling skills and see the ice chips flying as two players converge on the goal. There's no admission charge - you can't regulate people-flow in a shopping mall - but only a handful watched this particular game which ended 6-6 after overtime, probably due to the late hour and a lack of public awareness. Until crowds improve or the league moves to a big new purpose-built rink under construction at Yau Yat Tsuen, the Bud League will be the best-kept sporting secret in Hong Kong. Tonight's game: Planet Hollywood v Santa Fe, Sky Rink, Dragon Centre, 9.30 pm.