Ice hockey in Asia. It's about as synonymous as palm trees in the tundra. Wrong!! At least according to Tom Barnes the executive director of Asiasports Limited, the man and organization responsible for spreading the gospel of the world's fastest sport in this part of the world.
Hockey is an all consuming passion for Barnes, a native of St.Louis, Missouri, who cites Wayne Gretzky as one of his idols. "I've kept all the issues of Sports Illustrated where he was on the cover (he thinks there are eight of them).
The US `Miracle on Ice' was also a big inspiration to Barnes, and as he progressed in the game he got better, eventually being selected the captain of his high school team. "One year we finished third in the state, and we actually had more spectators than the football team which is quite a feat considering we were playing in Missouri."
Barnes, 31, attended the University of Miami at Ohio where he took a business degree in organizational behavior. After he graduated, he worked for a company called Enterprise Leasing renting cars in St.Louis and then he was transferred to Seattle, Washington. This is where he met his wife, Cara, whose sister and brother-in-law were living in Hong Kong at the time.
Cara had just graduated from the University of Washington with a teaching certificate and was looking for full-time work. Tom was ready for a career change. The relatives in Hong Kong convinced Tom and Cara to join them so the Barnes' came to Hong Kong in February of 93, and soon after Tom started working for Star TV as a program researcher for the prime sports channel.
During a hike to a place called the Frog and Toad, a dive in the middle of the jungle, on Lantau Island, Barnes met a fellow named Merritt Maddux who was wearing a Can-Am hockey shirt. "Maddux told me they played in Hong Kong, and I immediately had my stuff sent over. This was in the summer of 93."
That fall, Barnes started playing shinny every Monday night at Tai Koo Shing in City Plaza on Hong Kong Island. He said there was a pool of about 40 players to draw from.
Hong Kong had held its first hockey tournament in March of 93 with four Hong Kong teams. The second tourney (the first one to feature teams from other countries), was held the following year and six teams participated, three from Hong Kong, and three from overseas: a Bangkok Thai team, a team from Beijing, and a team from Bahrain. In 1995, the tourney was sponsored by Moosehead and nine teams participated including new squads from Dubai, Bangkok (the Flying Farangs), and Tokyo.
The tourney has continued to expand every year and this year new teams from Toronto and Prague entered the event. Unfortunately, the economic crisis hurt both Bangkok's Thai and farang teams so this was the first year that Thailand wasn't represented at the Hong Kong tourney.
Barnes says that this year's tourney also featured an Asian Division composed of Asians from Singapore, Taiwan, Macau, the Philippines, the Hong Kong Chinese, South Korea and the Hong Kong Japanese.
In the fall of 95, Hong Kong started their league with four teams of ten to eleven players each. These teams were a combination of both locals and ex-pats, and they played on the new Skyrink at the Dragon Center in Sham Sui Po.
The Hong Kong season runs from October to the end of February and it finishes with the international tourney they hold annually. Budweiser and its representative in Hong Kong, Robert Esser, have allowed Barnes and Asiasports to do what they do. Bud sponsored the league in its initial season and has continued to do so. "Budweiser support my being. They pay for the ice, my salary, video production, advertising, making posters etc.," Barnes says.
Players have to pay HK$1,800 to play for one year in the Budweiser South China Hockey League. "Last year we had 81 players and seven goalies. This year we have 90 players and nine goalies. We've added about ten players a year. We now play 17 games and we've got six teams (sponsors include Santa Fe Transport, Distacom, Dharmala, Jack-in-the-Box, Yellow Pages, and the Dragon Center)."
Barnes says that about forty percent of the players are Canadian, thirty percent are locals from Hong Kong, fifteen percent are American, and another fifteen percent are European.
Shane Weir, head of the Can-Am Hockey Association, and a lawyer by trade, came up with the idea of attracting current and former hockey players as shareholders for his fledging Asiasports franchise. So today the organization is owned by former or current hockey players. Formed 1 July 96, it organizes league games and tournaments.
At that time, Barnes (who was on Can-Am's executive board) had been with Star TV for close to three years and thought he was starting to stagnate so he approached Weir about the possibility of doing something full-time with Asiasports.
And it came to be.
Steve Mossing, a protege of Barnes, is currently setting up a league in Taiwan involving three teams from Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. The rink is in Taichung, and the players from Kaohsiung will bus up while the ones from Taipei have worked out a deal with a local airline which will fly them down for their games which will take place on Sunday mornings. Mossing's salary will be supported by the revenue generated from the league. Asiasports will put the Taiwanese game statistics on their web page.
Asked about the possibility of forming an Asian hockey league, Barnes says, "I see it starting out as a circuit and eventually forming into some sort of league. We would have to keep track of who's winning tournaments, allocate points etc. and we would have the final each year in places like Hong Kong, Dubai or Bangkok where are tourneys are usually held.
"This is the best hockey you can see out here," Barnes says, "Tokyo has its own league up and running, and China has just started a league too. I was able to see a tape of the final this year which was played in Harbin and broadcast across China live via CCTV. It was pretty good hockey."
Barnes has made contact with Frank Nakano, who works for NHL Enterprises out of New York. Nakano thinks the future of hockey in this region is in-line (roller hockey) and he has offered to sell Barnes inflatable rinks at a discount for Hong Kong and Taiwan. "Roller hockey is huge in Taiwan. They have twenty-five teams, and they hold tourneys all the time," Barnes says. Nakano wants to set up an Asian in-line tourney with the winner representing Asia in the world finals in California in September.
They are playing ice hockey everywhere in South-East Asia these days. Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Manila, Saigon and Singapore all have rinks. Indonesia held an exhibition/tournament in October of last year. Two local Indonesian teams, and a team-and-a-half from both Singapore and Hong Kong participated. The Indonesian teams were wearing a mix of roller, and ice hockey equipment. Their rink is located in a shopping mall which is where most of the rinks tend to be built. The organizers sold over 5,000 tickets for the event.
Kuala Lumpur has a state-of-the-art rink in a shopping mall that allows for viewing from five tiers above. And a little further north, Dubai also has its own league with team competing from Abu Dhabi, Al Ani, Bahrain, Dubai, Kuwait, and Riyadh.
The National Hockey League shut down its season for two weeks this years to allow its best players to play for their respective countries at the Winter Olympics in Nagano. This was undoubtedly the best ice hockey tourney ever held and the NHL is hoping that the exposure will whet the appetite of hockey fans worldwide for future similar type tourneys.
The Flying Farangs staged their annual OK Cup here in Bangkok last November and Hong Kong edged Tokyo 3-2 in an extremely fast-paced and tightly fought final. The Farangs with the help of the Tokyo Canadiens raised quite a lot of money for Father Joe and his Human Development Center in Klong Toey during the tourney.
So if you are traveling and get a chance to see ice hockey played in Asia, check it out, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
(Barnes outdid himself for his 99 tourney, inviting hockey hero Gordie Howe to the event, and staging many of the games at the fabulous new Festival Walk.)
You can contact Barnes and his crew at AsiaSports:
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