SEVEN-year-old Ciaran Wong donned a pair of Harry Potter glasses, sleek body armour and uniform, anticipating an intense battle ahead. Except, it wasn’t a wand he was going to be picking up – but an ice hockey stick.
Ice hockey was once a sport Malaysians mainly saw on-screen. After all, there’s no snow in this country, let alone winter. But against the odds, the sport has been picking up steam (pun intended) here, especially among young people.
The Malaysian Ice Hockey Federation (MIHF) National Ice Hockey League Finals, held on May 24, saw dozens of children and men pack the ice rink in Sunway Pyramid, including Wong.
It was a fresh experience for him, having only spent a little over five months in the sport. But it was the most interesting he’d been in, with not even taekwondo able to retain his interest as a co-curricular activity.
It was one of ice hockey’s charms (the uniform, for him) that drew Wong in, likewise for the crowd that had eagerly gathered to watch the competition.
Progress has been slow, but ice hockey has certainly gained a foothold. In fact, just over 10 years ago, the sport was mainly championed by enthusiastic parents who had banded together for their children’s sake.
In 2006, that initiative evolved into MIHF, a national association now recognised by the International Ice Hockey Federation. That was a crucial step in establishing the sport nationally, on an international platform.
“Back then, parents wanted to see the sport grow, not only for the benefit of their children, but for others, too,” said Noor Hisham Yahaya, who headed the League Finals’ committee this year.
“Having the sport recognised by Malaysia has given these kids the hope of representing the country one day.”
Even the girls have been smitten by its magic. Inarah Sofiya, 16, hit her first puck when she was eight.
Her case is special though, as her father, Haniff Mahmood, was a national player himself. But Inarah, who was one of the only girls playing, had to join the boys when she started, though that situation is steadily improving.
“Competitions now also include girls teams and divisions,” she explained. “There has been more effort to bring girls into the sport now, though there isn’t a national girls team yet.”
Mohammad Hariz, 14, is part of a new crop of young talents to emerge. He is relatively fresh, with only four years’ experience tucked under his belt. Yet, he was already playing for the Wolves, a Division 2 team at the finals.
And he, too, has noticed growing interest for the sport among young people.
“When I started playing, there were only two other people my age in the entire federation,” he recalled.
“Nowadays, there are a lot of little kids signing up as well!”
Omar Mokthar, 26, was one of Hariz’s competitors. Omar, who played for the Mayans, is part of an older generation of young ice hockey players. He began training when he was 18 and was selected for the national team shortly after.
“Ice hockey was a very niche sport. I mean, it still is now, but it has gained greater acceptance by the younger generation,” he added. “Before, the game was played mostly by adults.”
A testament to the sport’s growing appreciation is the number of new rinks being built in the country, one of which is an Olympic-sized rink at Empire City in Damansara Perdana, Selangor.
The match between the Wolves and Mayans was ultimately a close one, but the former finally took home the cup. It was a team filled with many young, talented individuals, such as Hariz, all with the potential to take the sport, hopefully, to an international level in the future.
“We’re almost there. With a bit of support, this sport can be pushed even further,” Omar said. “Realistically, I think it will take another 10 to 15 years for us to reach international standards.”
Noor agreed, stating that talented ice hockey players could always come from non-winter countries like ours.
After all, in 2000, the Jamaican bob sledge team won a gold medal at the World Push Championship in Monaco, France. Clearly, it’s all a matter of building the right foundation for it to grow.
“It’s not impossible for a non-winter country to become an ice hockey nation. Thailand is also one of them,” he said. “Next, we hope to participate in ice hockey at the SEA Games.”
Such an accomplishment, of course, is still a long way off for someone as young as Wong. As of now, he’s simply enjoying his new passion, and relishing the chance to gear up for it.
Who knows, he may be spearheading the Malaysian ice hockey team in years to come.