Ice hockey: Fresh faces give Singapore the edge at Challenge Cup of Asia

Singapore's Men's National Hockey team at the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia in Kuala Lumpur, where they clinched the bronze medal.
Singapore's Men's National Hockey team at the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia in Kuala Lumpur, where they clinched the bronze medal.PHOTO: SINGAPORE ICE HOCKEY FEDERATION

SINGAPORE - The exuberance of youth has been a key factor in the rise of the Singapore men's ice hockey team, capped by their third-placed finish earlier in March at the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia in Kuala Lumpur.

With an influx of younger players - the average age of the current 25-member squad is 27, down from 32 in 2017 - the team are fitter and faster, allowing them to play a higher-tempo game needed to be competitive on the international stage.

This was apparent when they beat host Malaysia 4-0 in the bronze-medal play-off of the Challenge Cup. At the 2017 SEA Games, Singapore were trashed 8-2 by a Malaysian side comprising mainly the same players.

Singapore captain Daniel Chew, 39, said: "The whole team knew that it was not going to be an easy fight but this year we had many youth players who were determined to win the game.

"A younger team means that the team's drive and fitness are better and so they play better."

This pivot towards youth was deliberate. The Singapore Ice Hockey Association started its youth programme in 2017 and promoted two youth players a year later to the senior team (the minimum age is 16). This year, six more moved up.

One of them is 16-year-old Bryan Lee. The Anglo Chinese School (Independent) student was born here but grew up in the United Arab Emirates where he picked up the sport when he was five.

In Kuala Lumpur, he was the tournament's fourth-highest scorer with eight goals and also had six assists.

"I feel very fortunate as the coach put me on a line with some fantastic players who were able to set me up for some amazing chances. I'm also really grateful to the coach because he trusted me enough to give me a lot of ice time while most coaches wouldn't give it to a rookie," said the 1.72m forward.

Mongolia won the seven-team tournament and the Philippines were runners-up.

While the Filipinos will be favourites for the gold at the 2019 SEA Games, which the country is hosting, Singapore are eyeing a podium finish.

To achieve that will mean increasing the training sessions and competing in more overseas tournaments for exposure, both of which are difficult given the financial constraints for this largely self-funded group.

In order to raise funds for the youth team's participation in the South-east Asia Youth Cup in Thailand in 2018, the team organised an online donation drive via giving.sg where over $9,000 were received.

They train once a week at JCube from midnight to 2am on Fridays as the rates are cheaper.

Director of the men's team Joewe Lam said: "We're trying to get more on-ice sessions so that we can improve but as we are self-funded, we're trying to work with the rink to see what kind of sponsorship or favourable rates they can give the team."

The coaching team are currently made up of volunteers, with Chew serving as both skipper and coach.

Lam added: "All of us are working adults and we have to juggle ice hockey and work together. If we could have more support from the various associations and the government, I know that this could become something bigger."