Hockey is making a pivot towards Asia. Never mind the lack of a winter sport tradition in the Orient, just focus on the billions of potential fans who might be coaxed into paying for TV subscriptions to watch the big leagues. It’s as if the IOC heard the jingling of tills when it voted to take the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing.
However, surprising as it might seem, there is a grassroots hockey community in Asia as well. And, for the players on Taiwan, the qualifying process for Beijing has delivered a huge boost to the fledgling national program. Not because the island, which plays as Chinese Taipei in international tournaments due to the complex political relations between the People’s Republic and its near neighbour, is going to be joining Russia, Canada etc on the ice. But because the qualification campaign saw the country, placed 45 in the IIHF world ranking and only active in IIHF tournaments since 2017, achieved its best ever results in international play, culminating in a 7-1 thrashing of Mexico to claim bronze in a qualification tournament in Barcelona.
If ‘better than Mexico’ sounds like the faintest of hockey praise, keep in mind that the Mexicans are ranked nine places higher than Chinese Taipei. Normally, Taiwan doesn’t even get to play against teams at this level but winning through the first group stage (against Hong Kong, Thailand and Kuwait) earned the team a look at higher level opposition. Match-ups against the Netherlands, Spain and Mexico represented the toughest tests for Taiwan since its 2011 Asian Winter Games campaign ended in heavy losses against Kazakhstan, Japan and Korea.
The group began with more heavy losses as the Dutch and the Spanish racked up double-figure margins. The outcomes were hardly surprising: both nations play at a higher level in the IIHF World Championship and both had featured in Olympic Qualifying before. Spain hosted a group at this stage last time around in Valdemoro, the Dutch made it one stage further to play in Cortina d’Ampezzo against Great Britain, Italy and the Serbian team that triumphed in Spain.
But, compared with 2011, even those heavy losses represented progress: in Kazakhstan, the Taiwanese were allowing 10 goals in a period. Then came the big one against Mexico and a historic victory, much to the delight of head coach Ryan Lang.
“Overall for us it was a fantastic tournament,” he said. “We came as the last seed we knew we were in tough, but we have a great group of guys there, we played it defence first, played to a system and we ended up having a pretty successful tournament.
“Even those heavy losses against the top teams showed progress; five or six years ago they were beating us 30-0. Now we’re playing a style of hockey that suits our team, the plyers are bought in and we’re seeing results. It’s a fantastic effort by everybody.”
So how does a kid from Taiwan get a start in hockey? It’s not easy. The island has one rink for more than 20 million people. For 12 hours a day, it’s open for public skating, so there’s not much time to practice – and when there is, it means dragging yourself along to a graveyard slot in the middle of the night.
“I think most of us started out playing roller hockey,” said defenceman Chou-En Sang. “We love the thought of ice hockey but that’s not possible for a lot of people. There just isn’t the ice time.
“We’re trying to develop the sport, but it’s hard. There’s not a lot of support, not a lot of sponsorship. But everyone has that passion and we’re doing all we can to make it better together.”
Sang, also known as Yohann Alzon, is a bit different. He has a French father and that helped him get a place on the roster at Rouen Dragons. Still only 19, he moved to Normandy as a schoolboy and has gained a hockey education in one of France’s top clubs.
“I’ve learned a lot over there, it’s so different from hockey in Taiwan,” he said. “It’s like a totally different game. It’s hard even to explain, but it’s like learning real hockey. The systems, the plays, the tactics. I’m trying to bring back some stuff to help the guys here.”
Head coach Lang underlined how important foreign experience can be for his players. “It’s huge for any of us to go overseas,” he said. “Opportunities are few and far between. I’ve got a few connections in Canada to help guys go there, we have a few guys in the US, so we’re just trying to get them away from the island so they can come back and help [the national team].”
Lang is very much Mr. Hockey in Taiwan. A Canadian who came to the island about 10 years ago on vacation and ended up staying, he’s been involved in developing hockey from the start.
“Unbeknownst to me, I was expected to start coaching hockey from day one,” he smiled. “It was a surprise at the time, but I love it. We’re a long way from what I thought was a hockey community but the passion that the players show is just incredible. That makes me passionate about it and I do everything I can to help them get better.”
The next target is World Championship Division IIIA in Luxembourg in April. Buoyed by its Olympic adventures, this team hopes it can bring back another medal and maybe even earn promotion to Division II for the first time ever.