by Scott Murray

Bangkok=hockey. Next we will be dog sledding, and building igloos on Sukhumvit, right? Well, for a number of strapping Thais, and a few hardy farangs the above equation is a reality. Every Tuesday night the "Flying Farangs" discard their PC's and briefcases for their sticks and skates, and head to the Imperial World Samrong to lace up their blades, and play hockey with some of Thailand's best players.


Most foreigners cannot believe it when they first hear that they can play hockey in Thailand. Very few have equipment. It's usually not on their `must bring' list when they are packing to come to Asia. As a result these ex-pats are sent scrambling for protective gear once they learn that they can play the world's fastest game in Bangkok.


The founder, and organiser of the "Flying Farangs" is Canadian Craig O'Brien. O'Brien, a mechanical engineer by trade, has since returned to Canada but when he first hit Don Muang's tarmac he set off in search of an ice rink instead of heading to the usual tourist haunts of Pattaya or Patpong. He lived for the game, and his zeal rubbed off on his teammates, many of whom never took the game so seriously in their lives.


From petroleum engineers to investment consultants, teachers, journalists, deep sea divers, stamp collectors, and hotel executives the professions of the players run the gamut. But for a few hours every Tuesday, they can pretend to be Wayne Gretzky again, and have fun doing it.


Every October, the Farangs host an international hockey tournament. Originally organised by Czech Airlines, it's called the "OK Cup" after that airline's call sign. Teams have come from as far away as Russia, Canada, and the Czech Republic by the regulars are Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, Beijing and Tokyo. Thailand is represented by the "Flying Farangs," and the Thai National team.


Thailand's best player is Vanchalerm "Top" Rattapong. He has the skills and instinct of a great player, yet he has never skated outside of Thailand. Top works for a local modeling agency and his good looks and stylish appearance have many calling him the "Jaromir Jagr of Thai ice hockey."


The Thais have an eleven team league where teams named the Walruses face-off against squads like the Grizzlies, Peanuts and an all girl's team called the Polar Bears.


One of the drawbacks to playing hockey in Thailand is the cost of equipment, which can be quite prohibitive. Although the game with its myriad of rules and infractions can be difficult to understand, there is a growing base of support for the sport here in Bangkok.


Peter Suozzo, a winger with the Flying Farangs and a securities anaylst with Warburg, Dillon & Read explains why he started playing hockey in Bangkok, "One of my biggest regrets in moving to Thailand was that I would no longer be able to play ice hockey. Being the upstate New York boy that I am hockey is in my blood."You can imagine my surprise when I heard whispered rumours that there was a group of guys who played street hockey here. I heard that they played on the roof of an office building in the heart of the business district. (Why a roof? For the breeze, as it turns out.)"One day I mentioned this to someone while on the phone who said, it's true, and he said he knew the guy who organised it. So I ended up on the roof of an insurance company on Silom Road playing street hockey in Bangkok."If that was a shock, imagine my surprise when I discovered that some of the players played ice hockey as well! Sure enough, I soon found myself skating with the luminaries of the Bangkok ice hockey world. The entire planet was represented from French Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Japan, Thailand, Australia, and a few places no one's ever heard of (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba). And not to forget a smattering of kids, and an occasional woman player."It's an amazing collection of players from all over the world (far different from the white bread teams I'm used to) representing all types of players: quick and tough Canadians, body-pounding beer-drinking ex-Czech army types, talented Finns with amazing skating skills and bag of stickhandling tricks, combined with the lightweight but fleet-footed and indefatigable Thais. I doubt I'll ever play with such a group again--a veritable United Nations of hockey.


"Most of all, I enjoy playing because at home I'd play with different people every time and there was little camaraderie. Although in Bangkok people come and go there's a core that remains the same. Playing in such an odd environment far from home (for most of us) makes for a lot of camaraderie and a much more fun experience. But in spite of its being fun the hockey at times reaches a very high level of intensity and skill. There's nothing quite like it, and hockey will never be quite as enjoyable anywhere else."


Shaun Chapman, a computer animator, and a power forward with the Farangs says "For me it's about playing a game I enjoy. I think most people have passion for a particular sport if they have played it before, especially if they played it when they were kids. I started to play organized hockey at the age of six so I guess it's a part of me. The `being a kid again' aspect of the game might be part of the allure as well. It's an escapist activity where the only things that on your mind are playing the game, making a good pass, beating someone to the puck, scoring a goal, winning the game, congratulating a teammate, and the roar of the crowd (although that is in my head, of course). It sort of brings back the fun of youth."


Chris Gowland, an Australian who is working in Bangkok teaching English, says he had never even skated, yet alone played hockey, before he came to Bangkok. "The game is fun, there's nothing quite like it, I enjoy the camaraderie, and since I haven't played before, my potential for improvement is unlimited."


Jason Cotsmire a look-kreung copy-writer, who works for a major advertising agency here in Bangkok, is the Flying Farang goalie, and he rekindled his passion for the game by playing here in Bangkok, "Ask me when I was a youngster, playing hockey on the local pond, if I would still be playing 20 years later...I would have answered no. Ask me that same question about six years ago when I moved to Thailand, I would have said forget it. First of all, hockey in Thailand...too hot...the ice would melt. However, hockey has taken a foothold in Bangkok ever since the first rinks opened in the kingdom.


"I first started playing with the Thais...teaching them the little things I knew. At that time, it was still a relatively new sport and many didn't even know the rules of the game. As the kids got better, the games became more fun but they still lacked the challenge of playing with people who really knew the game.


"I was introduced to the Flying Farangs about five years ago and it has truly been a blessing. To still be able to play the sport you love, in a city where you never would have imagined it possible, is something to cherish. I truly look forward to the weekly games and have found a new fire in my belly for the sport. I enjoy playing hockey in Bangkok for the friends I have made. Many of the people I have met through hockey, both farang and Thai, are not people I would have met otherwise. The camraderie from a beautiful goal or a brilliant save is just as relevant now as when we were kids.


"I also enjoy the fact that through hockey, we have been able to make a difference in society. On one level, we have raised the level of play of the Thai kids, challenging them to become better. The commitment of many of the farangs to the growth of the sport is just amazing, I have caught that bug and have been helping out some of the kids. On another level, we have raised money for charity through our annual tournament. Nothing beats being able to do some good for others while playing hockey.


"On a personal front, I have found a new challenge in my hockey career here in Bangkok. Playing as a forward or defenseman for most of my life, I have now started playing goal. I enjoy it so much and love working towards getting better each week."


The Flying Farangs hope to play a major part in speading the gospel of ice hockey in Southeast Asia. Who knows maybe in twenty years teams from Hanoi, Saigon, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Manila and Rangoon will be playing in a Southeast Asian Hockey League.

20 Jan 99

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