Flying Farangs Make NHL.COM
Most people in the west are unaware that organized ice hockey even exists in Thailand. Unfortunately, few in the Far East are aware of it, either. In a country of 62 million people, there are only about 200 natives who play hockey – 80 adult men, 100 boys and 20 women.
But hockey in Thailand actually has three decades worth of history, and a Thai national team represents the country at Asian-based hockey tournaments. The vast majority of the hockey community in Thailand is comprised of expatriates from Canada, the United States, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Czech Republic, Japan and other countries.
As with most non-traditional hockey countries, hockey equipment is tough (and expensive) to come by in Thailand. The tropical Thai climate also seems inhospitable to the sport, but there are several ice rinks available, foggy but functional.
Seek and you shall find hockey
There are currently three rinks in Thailand. It takes some effort to seek out hockey at the facilities, but you’ll find it at two of them. Today, there’s an Olympic-sized ice rink, called the World Ice Skating Center, located on the seventh floor of the Thai World Trade Center Complex in Bangkok. It is the biggest rink in Southeast Asia. But the facility places a low priority on hosting ice hockey. The sport’s development has never been atop the agenda of the Bangkok-based Thai Ice Skating Association. It’s primarily figure skating, not hockey that rinks are built for and stay in existence.
As a result, most hockey games and clinics are centered in the other two facilities. Most tournaments take place at the reopened Imperial Samrong Rink in Bangkok and the Bully Sky Ice rink in the city of Chiangmai. The full-sized Chiangmai rink is on the fifth floor of the Kad Suan Kaew Shopping Complex adjacent to a large hotel. The Bangkok facility is located at the Imperial World Samrong Shopping Complex, about 30 minutes outside the downtown area.
Thai hockey is in the same situation as other countries when it comes to providing equipment for local and foreign players. Most of it is either donated by visiting players or obtained via fundraising efforts by the expatriate community.
A veteran Thai player, Sakchai “Jeab” Chinanuvatana, imports equipment from North America and Europe and supplies the gear to as many other players as possible. The problem is that it’s a costly business to operate within Thailand, and the equipment is simply too expensive for most native Thais to be able to afford. As a result, most youth hockey participants in the country are from well-to-do families. The lower income youth players typically obtain second-hand equipment.
Showing the same “when there’s a will, there’s a way” spirit exhibited in many developing hockey countries, it’s not uncommon for Thai players to tape broken sticks together and play with ill-fitting gloves— or no gloves at all. Whatever it takes to play the game, the Thai players will gladly do.
Two years ago, the International Ice Hockey Federation hosted an Asian hockey development camp in Chiangmai. Along with Thai players, attendees from Taiwan, India, Singapore and Thailand braved oppressive heat outside and sweltering conditions inside the Bully Sky ice rink for the chance to learn from players from countries with IIHF World Championship experience.
Demonstrator Stephan Speck, a New Zealander, got an education of his own when he saw that some of the players did not even own a complete hockey uniform, but went all out in the sessions. “I was surprised to see some of the players wearing jeans. One player was wearing his turban under his helmet,” he told the IIHF Ice Times.
Added fellow instructor Stephan McClutcheon; “I came away with a feeling that every individual at the camp had gotten at least 50 percent better. It was definitely a worthwhile trip, and I hope that all the players at the camp continue to carry on with their hockey.”
Flying Farangs and Thai World Hockey League
Without the assistance and leadership of the expatriate hockey community in Thailand, it’s unlikely that the sport would still exist on an organized level in the country.
In 1994, the Flying Farangs club was first organized by a group of expatriate hockey players who were coaching some of the Thai hockey teams. Farang is the Thai word for foreigner.
A Canadian player, Craig O'Brien, founded the Farangs. A mechanical engineer by day, O’Brien organized a group of foreigners from diverse backgrounds sharing a common love for playing the game. Upon his return home, other Farang members took over the leadership mantle. In more recent years, defenseman Kevin Hall has spearheaded the team’s fund-raising efforts.
The Flying Farangs have become the keystone of Thai hockey to most of the global hockey community. A team jersey hangs in an exhibit on global hockey at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
In 1999, the Bangkok Hockey league was established, consisting of five teams. The next year, the league expanded to 10 teams – nine featuring Thai players and one club of expatriates vying for the championships. When the Samrong Ice Rink closed in 2002, the league was temporarily disbanded. The Flying Farangs, however, continued to press on, sending teams to tournaments in Asia. Teams from Thailand have played in tournaments held in Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, Malaysia, Dubai, and Ulaanbaatar.
Each October, in conjunction with Jancomb Sports Ltd., the Flying Farangs co-host an international fund-raising hockey tournament dubbed the OK Cup. Now entering its 13th year, the 2007 tournament will take place from Oct. 24-27 at the Samrong Rink. The tourney has the dual purpose of supporting the development of Thai hockey and raising money for needy children at the Human Development Center operated by Father Joseph Maier in Klongtoey.
Participating teams have come from as far away as Canada, Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic, but the regular foreign squads are from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, Beijing and Tokyo. Thailand is represented by the Flying Farangs and three or four all-Thai teams such as Canstar, the Grizzly Bears and the Rockets. At the end of the tournament, all of the players from every team mix together at a big “thank you” party.
In addition to the hockey event, the Flying Farangs host a charity golf tournament each August at a country club in the tourist haven of Pattaya. Now in its fourth year, the tournament proceeds are donated to the Thai Fund Foundation and to the further development of the Thai hockey program. In addition to the time spent on the links, participants can usually be found enjoying the Pattaya nightlife.
When the Samrong rink in Bangkok reopened, the Farangs quickly moved back into their old haunt. The team scrimmages there on Wednesday nights and its member also participate in the Thai World Ice Hockey League on Sunday evenings at the same venue.
The TWIHL is entering its fourth year of operations with five teams. In the modern circuit, there is even mixture of Thai and farang players on each squad. In addition to the native Thai players, you’ll find Canadians, Americans, Swedes, Finns, Germans, Japanese and Australians.
The skill level of the players varies widely. There are some former semi-professional players, but there are also novices who simply want to play. The circuit’s primary goal is to promote the sport as a fun way for people of all nationalities to bond and engage in friendly competition.
To date, the most skilled native player Thai hockey has produced is forward Vanchalerm “Top” Rattapong, and even he has never played outside of Asia. Rattapong works for a local modeling agency and his combination of flashy stickhandling and stylish appearance led him to be dubbed the Jaromir Jagr of Thailand by the farang players.
The multi-cultural makeup of the teams is intended to help advance the skill level of the Thai participants. Because goaltending is largely an individual position, there are three Thai goalies and three farang goalies in the league who rotate each week to play for different teams. This year, the league has added a support fund for players, intended to help subsidize the costs of equipment and ice time, especially for Thais who want to participate in the game.
The joy of competition
Earlier this year, Thailand participated in the Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China. The hockey tournament field was utterly lopsided. Participants ranged from Kazakhstan (a country that has produced NHL players, has played in the Olympics and at the elite level of IIHF World Championship competitions and, at worst, is a top Division I team) to the Division II caliber host nation to borderline Division III caliber United Arab Emirates down to the comparatively novice Thai and Hong Kong teams.
The Thais were coached by an American, Michael Rolanti. A former college player at RPI, Rolanti operates a chain of English language schools in the Thai capital.
The Thai players were extremely excited to pull on a national team sweater, even though they knew full well they had no chance of winning the hockey tournament and the Kazakhs were a shoo-in to win. Simply taking to the ice against a team like Kazakhstan was an honor.
Team Thailand played hard in every game, and lost by a respectable 4-0 score to the United Arab Emirates. But it was the game against Kazakhstan that drew attention overseas. The Thai team, plucky and courageous as it was, was simply out of its league.
Kazakhstan scored 52 goals in the game, seven of which came off the stick of left winger Oleg Eremeev, a professional player who has competed at the World Junior Championships and Division I World Championships. The Kazakhs out-shot the Thais 97-7, with six of the Thai shots coming in the third period. Nevertheless, the Thai players skated for 60 minutes as though the score were 0-0.
“I think it was a good game for us, because we never gave up,” Rolanti told The Toronto Sun.
While such words may sound trite – and perhaps even comical – those familiar with Thai hockey understood that simply not getting discouraged and continuing to play hard was the Thai team’s primary ambition. Scoring even a single goal would be a victory in its own right.
Seven minutes into the third period, the Thais shot wildly at the net, and the puck caromed right into the slot. Thai forward Arthit Thamwongsin just about lept out of his skates to pounce on the loose puck and ferociously slam the puck into the net past startled Kazakh goaltender Sergey Ogureshnikov.
Ogureshnikov is a top goaltender in the Kazakh league for Kazzinc Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk and has played in the World Championships at both the elite and Division I levels. To the Thais, scoring a goal on Ogureshnikov was almost like scoring on Martin Brodeur, because he represented competition at hockey’s top levels. Several minutes later, the Thais generated a breakaway opportunity, but Ogureshnikov made an easy stop.
Despite the epic rout, the Thais left with a positive feeling. The excitement of the lone goal was what they took away from the game, along with the experience of having played a well-established international opponent. It left the players hungry for more.
Recognition for work on, off ice
Bill Meltzer | NHL.com correspondent
Thai hockey occasionally drifts into the consciousness of the rest of the hockey world. In the early 1990s an on-ice appearance by former NHL player, 1980 Olympic gold medalist and Stanley Cup winner Neal Broten at a fund-raising tournament drew mild attention from overseas. More recently, Thai hockey was featured on an Asian sports television show, and print stories in Asia, Europe and North America.
Most notably, the NHL joined with the Thai hockey community two years ago in the wake of the deadly tsunami of December 2004. A fund-raising game organized by the Flying Farangs and Thai World Ice Hockey League nearly drew 800 onlookers to a rink not designed for spectator-driven hockey (the building was filled to capacity) and raised $50,000 (U.S.) in relief funds.
The NHL donated $2,600 for each goal scored in the game. Billed as “Canada vs. The World,” the match featured an all-Canadian squad took on a team of players from the United States, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Japan and Thailand. The World team won by a 7-6 score. In addition to the NHL donation, about $5,000 was raised through gate receipts at the door.
”We've played a lot of hockey here for more than 10 years, but this is the team's proudest moment,” Flying Farangs defenseman Kevin Hall said to the Associated Press.