SEA Games: Ice hockey makes splash in tropics, puddles and all

Talek HARRIS
Malaysia's Jun Ming Low (C) dribbles the puck past Indonesia's goalkeeper Sangga Munggaran Putra (R) during their ice hockey match at the 29th Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in Kuala Lumpur on August 20, 2017

Puddles on the rink didn't dampen enthusiasm as ice hockey made its Southeast Asian Games debut in tropical Malaysia, a country with no winter months but with ambitions in winter sports.

As the hosts beat Indonesia 10-3 in the first SEA Games ice hockey game, marshalls with squeegees had to mop up water after the ice started to melt in the first period.

Keeping the ice frozen isn't easy in Malaysia, a steamy, winterless country where snow is unheard of, temperatures rarely dip below 20 degrees C (68 F) and humidity hovers at 80 percent.

But Malaysia's coach, former Hungarian international Kristof Kovago, said his players were used to a bit of water on the rink -- and even saw it as an advantage.

"It is common in Southeast Asia because the weather is way too hot and very humid, and there are a lot of people inside (the venue), so it's very difficult to keep the temperature down," he said.

"We're used to it, that's our advantage actually. We've practised a lot in this kind of situation," Kovago explained.

"It's more sticky, so the puck will not slide. So a lot of times, you try to control the puck and you've just lost it because it will get stuck in the water.

"So it's not really an advantage but we got used to it, so we learned to play in these kind of conditions."

- Turning up the heat -

Sunday's game was at Kuala Lumpur's brand new national ice skating stadium, in the heart of a suburban shopping mall which remains partially under construction.

The rink, described by Indonesia's coach Gary Tan as the best in Southeast Asia, has had a few teething problems and it was previously blanketed by a thick fog, before staff adjusted the temperature settings.

On Sunday the rink was ringed by hundreds of enthusiastic fans, raising the temperature beyond normal levels.

"In the first period they found it difficult to skate but eventually they were able to skate well and overall the play was quite good," said Hisham Yahaya, Malaysia's team leader.

"They're used to soft ice. The ice here isn't very hard but they're able to adjust."

Ice hockey remains in its infancy in Southeast Asia and is usually played by small groups of enthusiasts.

Indonesia's team have only been together for a matter of months, and they are playing only their second tournament after making their debut at this year's Asian Winter Games in Japan.

"This is a milestone in the bigger development of this super-beautiful sport, ice hockey," said Indonesia's captain, Jonathan Sudharta.

"Asia is not known for ice games but I think this is a great milestone to develop this even further in the future."

He added: "It's a beautiful rink compared to what we have in Indonesia, so we don't want to complain about the wet or anything."

Tan, Indonesia's coach, also brushed off any concerns about the surface, saying a few puddles were "normal" in Asia.

"I'm happy for the development of the sport of ice hockey. It's a stepping stone, we waited a long time for this," he said.

Figure skating and speed skating will also make their debut at the SEA Games, a biennial competition where the sporting programme is usually tailored to suit the host nation.