by Graham Mattison
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, the premier street hockey tournament in the region featuring teams from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.
This year marked the fourth annual tourney and in what many consider to be the most competitive Cup yet, the team from Malaysia got the best of the Bangkok Thai Stix and the Singaporean side to take home its second straight Mekong Cup (Dr. Mahatir would be proud). The Mekong Cup was initiated by a rag-tag bunch including Paddi Rice and John Keller from KL and Lorne Yawney, Luc Perron and Richard Meiklejohn from Bangkok. Lorne and Luc have since retired, and been inducted into the Street Hockey Hall of Fame, while the others are still going strong. The resort island of Phuket in southern Thailand was selected as the ideal location - a middle ground between the capital cities with plenty of other attractions.
The first tournament, played in 1995, was a showdown between Bangkok and KL. 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 a team from Singapore and a team from Vietnam, based out of Ho Chi Minh City.
The one-day tournament is played on the grounds of the Amari Coral Beach Hotel on an old European handball court (similar to a large sized tennis court). Teams play 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 follows the championship game. Traditionally, post-game celebrations spill over into Patong Beach.
While this year's tournament proved to be the most exciting to date, signs of the Asian economic crisis were evident. All teams lost a number of players as the turmoil took its toll. While the core of the Thai Stix remained intact, the thirteen man roster was rounded out by six rookies. Both KL and Singapore had players fly in from North America to compete for the Cup (one from his home in Colorado and another from Saskatoon). Worst hit was Vietnam, which was unable to find enough players to send a team this year.
The opening game of the six game round-robin pitted arch rivals KL and Singapore against one another. In a hard fought game, KL's offense proved to be too much for Singapore's physical defensive corps, as they scored five goals to win 5-2. The second game pitted the original two Mekong Cup teams, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, in what proved to be an exciting offensive game, but outstanding play by both teams' goaltenders left the game in a 2-2 deadlock. The final game of the morning rounds saw Singapore edge out a tired Thai Stix squad 4-2.
When action resumed in the afternoon, the Thai Stix had their backs to the wall with just one point, trailing KL with three points, and Singapore with two. Following an inspirational pep talk from player-coach Richard Meiklejohn (aka Reg Dunlap) the Thai Stix came out with an offensive flurry.
The boys from Bangkok dominated their counterparts from KL, generating numerous quality scoring chances. However, as our American and Canadian Olympic ice hockey teams learned in Nagano this year, a hot goalie is hard to beat. The KL netminder held his team in the game, with the first half ending in a 0-0 tie.
The Thai Stix kept up their feverish pace of play in the second half, quickly building a 2-0 lead on goals from rookies Chris Armstrong and team captain Richard Meiklejohn. But down 2-0, the KL team fought back, capitalizing on two defensive zone coverage lapses, squaring the game at two goals apiece which is where it would end.
With KL assured of a spot in the finals, Bangkok faced off against the evil Singaporean team in a grudge match for he last spot in the championship. Team Singapore jumped out to an early lead, but the Thai Stix would not give up, fighting to bring the game to within one goal. With less than a minute to play and an extra attacker on the court, the Singaporeans netted an open-net goal, securing a berth in the finals against KL with 4-2 win.
In the final game, the Singapore team brought its feisty style of play, but was stymied by the KL goalie (who was the unofficial winner of the tournament MVP) and the Malaysian team secured a 5-0 shutout and the opportunity to drink again from the sacred chalice that is the Mekong Cup.
The Thai Stix, frustrated by this year's outcome, have already
begun training for the Mekong Cup V, which is just 48 weeks away!!