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Hong Kong’s Canada-based ball hockey team – another benefit of immigration waves to the country

  • Hong Kong has a ball hockey team that plays out of Edmonton, Alberta. The team’s manager and goalie talks about how this came to fruition
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2018, 4:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2018, 4:03pm

It sounds worlds apart: the snowy hinterlands of Edmonton, Alberta, a sprawling capital city of around 1.8 million people in the northern part of one of country’s prairie provinces. Then there’s Hong Kong, a bustling Asian metropolis smack in the middle of a hot, sweaty jungle climate.

Turns out these two seemingly polar opposites have more in common than one might think. Hong Kong’s ball hockey team, which has competed internationally since 2009, is now based out of Edmonton and features an array of second and third generation Asian Canadians who have taken to the sport.

Ball hockey is played on a ice hockey rink sans the ice (concrete or modular plastic flooring fills in). The sport is derived from ice hockey and was originally a way for players to keep in shape during summer months as refrigeration costs for arenas are expensive during hot weather. The game’s modern version apparently started in the 1960s in a few rinks across Canada and has since grown into an international sport that has world championships every two years. Retired National Hockey League player and Canadian Alexandre Burrows is in the International Ball Hockey Hall of Fame, showcasing the sport’s long reach.

Hong Kong’s team had an interesting start and a connection to a similarly diminutive representative team. Back in the mid-2000s, Hong Kong expat Darren Winia, who was eligible to play for the Cayman Islands’ ball hockey team (players must have at least one grandparent who was born in the country, or hold citizenship according to the International Street & Ball Hockey Federation), and wanted to help Hong Kong set up their international team. So Winia registered the local league with the ISBHF, and in 2009 Hong Kong competed at the world championships in the B pool. The ISBHF breaks its championships into two categories featuring an emerging nations division.

Hong Kong came last in their group at the tournament, which was held in the Czech Republic, but the seed had been planted. Hong Kong national team goaltender and Edmonton-native Matthew Lui, 41, who currently plays for the Edmonton Savages (a team that just won back-to-back national championships in Canada), said it was pure luck how Hong Kong’s Canadian connection got started.

“I was the only player from Canada while the rest of the team was from Hong Kong,” he said of the squad that competed in the Czech Republic. “I was looking at the World Championship website following my Edmonton teammates who were on Team India and Team Canada when I saw there was a Team Hong Kong. I reached out and luckily for me they needed a goalie so I jumped on board.”

After the tournament Lui, whose parents are from Hong Kong and China and immigrated to Canada in the 1970s, kept playing for Hong Kong at subsequent world championships held around the world, and with each passing year, more and more Canadians joined the ranks and he increased the team’s profile in Edmonton and became the general manager in 2013.

“By 2017 we only had one player from Hong Kong while the rest were in Canada,” Lui said. “It’s easier for me as I see more players living here.”

This was also the year that Hong Kong’s ball hockey team (they’re aptly called the Islanders) made history, winning the B Division in the tournament, which was also held in the Czech Republic. They beat Great Britain 3-0 in the gold medal match, a team comprised almost completely of Asian Canadians. It was quite the tournament for the ramshackle squad, who were forced to stay in the cheapest possible hotel in Paradubic, Czech Republic, due to difficulty fundraising back home in Canada, and they also endured a delayed luggage fiasco. The team lost the first three games before going on an absolute tear to win four straight.

Canada is known as a nation of immigrants and its open-door policies in attracting people from other countries. It has a healthy Asian population from dozens of diaspora waves in most of its major cities, a demographic that has assimilated well into Canadian culture over the years.

According to Statistics Canada, Asian Canadians make up the largest portion of the country’s visible minorities at close to 20 per cent. Close to 300,000 Hongkongers hold Canadian passports.

Lui said ball hockey is becoming more and more popular with Asian Canadians each year as the sport itself grows in terms of exposure and players.

“I believe having highlights and games on the internet has also brought about more fans to ball hockey,” he said. “Ball hockey is easy to pick up as all you need is a stick and runners. There are many different levels that people can play and I do see more Chinese players playing. As ice hockey gains in popularity, so does ball hockey.”

Case in point: Vancouver has a massive South Asian population and India’s ball hockey team, which trains out of Surrey, a city within the metropolis boundaries, is currently ranked eight in the world, only six spots behind Canada.

Lui said winning gold at the 2017 Championships was huge for the team in terms of exposing more Asian Canadians and Hongkongers to the sport (Hong Kong currently has a junior programme called the Tigers).

“We hope that little kids playing in the junior programme in Hong Kong can see our games and achievements,” Lui said. “Hopefully this can show them that anyone can succeed when they put in the hard work. Our captain Lokki Kwan was born in Hong Kong and moved to Canada when he was young. We also have a top defenceman in Derrick Wong who played for Team Canada under-20s and decided to play with Hong Kong at the adult level.”

Lui said the team is trying to raise funds to head to the 2019 World Championships and defend their title, which will take place in Slovakia this coming June.