10th Annual Mekong Cup
By Scott Murray

Patong recently played host to the tenth annual Mekong Cup. This one-day ball hockey tournament, the biggest of its kind in Asia, was played on the tennis courts of the Amari Coral Beach Hotel. Teams played 5-on-5 (four out with a goalie) in a round-robin format with the top teams advancing to the afternoon final. A beachside awards banquet/BBQ followed the championship game, and post-game celebrations spilled over onto Patong Beach.

As tourney organizer John Casella says, “This event takes place every year in the middle of springtime once the winter snows of Phuket have melted, giving way to the smooth surface of the Amari Coral Beach tennis courts and exposing the soft underbelly of Patong Beach.”

In this year’s tourney, the Thai Stix ball hockey squad reclaimed top honours, beating out four other teams for the coveted prize. After the preliminary round robin round, the Hong Kong Islanders were seeded first, followed by the Thai Stix, the Bangkok Bullies, the Singapore Chili Crabs and the Kuala Lumpur Cobras.

In the first semi-final Hong Kong defeated Singapore to set up a championship bout with the Thai Stix who defeated the Bullies 5-3 in the other semi-final contest. Hong Kong was confident going into the final as they had beaten the Stix 5-1 in round robin play.

And the Islanders did get off to a good start jumping into a 2-0 lead, eventually assuming a 4-2 lead with less than eight minutes to play in the game. It looked like the Mekong Cup was headed to Hong Kong when Islander goalie Gerald Tang had his first lapse of the day and the Thai Stix incredibly rallied for three goals by Jamie Marriott, Shane Gunther and Jamie Hunter in less than two minutes to take the lead. They held on, but just barely as Hong Kong stormed around Stix goalie Scott Whitcomb in the final ten seconds of the game, scoring a goal just as time ran out. Shane Gunther with three goals in the final game claimed the Reg Meiklejohn MVP Award. And the Stix captured their fourth championship in five years, with Singapore’s victory last year being the only broken link in their chain of victories.

The Stix and Bullies are both based out of Bangkok, where they face off against each other on Thursday nights at the British Club. But to add a little local flavour the Stix picked up three teachers (Jeff Lamantia, and Mike and Mark Bertoia affectionately known as the Hanson Brothers) from Dulwich International School in Phuket to round out their squad. John "Il Duce" Casella, the Thai Stix' GM/Playing Coach/Captain, deserved kudos for putting together a line-up that saw him mix Thai Stix veterans like Gunther, Keith “KJ” Johnston, John Stevens, Jamie Hunter and Germain Bergeron with players from the Flying Farang ice hockey team including Scott Murray, Jeff Lamantia, Jamie McDonald, Mike White, Jamie Marriott, Scott Whitcomb and Kevin Dougherty.

One of the founders of the Thai Stix was the son of a former Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Luc Perron. Back then the team played on the roof of the AIA building on Suriwong Road in Bangkok. They caught more breeze that way.

Ball hockey developed in North America as a way ice hockey players could keep in shape during the summer months when ice time was scarce. Some of the Thai Stix also play ice hockey with the Flying Farangs but they will likely admit that as they get older, they find it tougher to play ball hockey because of the greater demands it puts on their cardiovascular system. Because of the heat and the nature of the game - you can't float like you can in ice hockey - it is just such a demanding workout.

The game itself has morphed from simply using dead tennis balls, beat up ice hockey sticks, a driveway and a couple of trash cans as goal posts. Now there are roller blades (yes, there is a league), high-tech equipment and playing surfaces and special roller or hockey balls. But the Thai Stix are purists - balls and stixs, enthusiasm and that never ending competitive spirit is what you'll find flying them honing in on the tennis courts they perform on.

The first tournament, played in 1995, was a showdown between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. With the best-of-five series knotted at two game a piece, the game was called due to darkness with the score tied at one. The following Cups saw the addition of the Bullies and teams from Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

John Stevens, one of the longest serving members on the Thai Stix, explains his passion for the game: "First, it has to do with carrying on the great hockey tradition that almost every Canadian shares. Second, the thrill of playing in a tropical climate is quite bizarre. Third, the sheer excitement of the game that you have loved since you were a little kid. It gets in your blood very quickly."

A team combining the Thai Stix and Bullies has also represented Bangkok at tournaments in Vietnam, winning in their two appearances to date. The British Club has also hosts the famed Patpong Cup, an annual event which bouts the Thai Stix against the Bullies for Bangkok bragging rights.

The Mekong Cup can be quite a draw as former Thai Stix Graham Mattison noted after returning from his home in Connecticut to play in last year’s event. “While the arrival of the month of June signals the beginnings of summer in North America and the Stanley Cup finals, for a group of hockey playing expats living in South-East Asia it means just one thing: the Mekong Cup.”