Ice hockey team faces daunting task

Ryan Tan (left), at 17 the youngest member of the men's ice hockey national team, and Johan Venema, 20, at a training session at The Rink at JCube. Winter sports will make their debut at next year's SEA Games.
Ryan Tan (left), at 17 the youngest member of the men's ice hockey national team, and Johan Venema, 20, at a training session at The Rink at JCube. Winter sports will make their debut at next year's SEA Games. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

The reality check for the men's national ice hockey team came in Abu Dhabi this month when they conceded 37 goals and scored only five.

With that imbalance came the realisation that their pursuit of a gold medal at next year's SEA Games is in serious doubt.

Out of the four defeats at the International Ice Hockey Federation Challenge Cup of Asia in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, their 1-7 loss to Thailand on March 16 was a pivotal result.

Of the teams they played against, only Thailand will be competing in the August 2017 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, where winter sports will make their debut. By necessity, therefore, the Thai team become a barometer for Singapore's prospects.

Singapore Ice Hockey Association president Alphonsus Jude Joseph cites two main problems - a lack of fitness and not enough training sessions. He said: "Fitness-wise, most of (our) guys were already out of speed by the last quarter."

Said volunteer national coach Darrin Harrold, 37, a teacher at the Canadian International School: "Clearly, our skills are not up to their standards yet. We've got to develop (our standards) more."

Truth is, limited resources are a perpetual issue for the Singaporeans. Sharing a commercial arena at The Rink at JCube with ice skaters limits the number of training sessions to just two a week, each lasting about an hour.

SOME WAY TO GO

At this level, we are not ready to take on Thailand. We don't have enough game exposure to compete at a high, fast-paced level .

MICHAEL LOH, national ice hockey player, who believes the SEA Games gold is an unrealistic target.

In comparison, Thailand train four times a week on ice, while the UAE practise six times a week.

It costs up to $1,000 to book the rink for an hour on Sunday nights, and about $500 during the week.

Joseph said: "Twice a week is not enough if we want to be serious."

He is aware Singapore's rivals are fast catching up, with Malaysia hiring a full-time coach.

The Philippines and Indonesia are new entrants, but their local clubs were victorious in different categories at the March 2-5 Lion City Cup.

"It does worry me," said Joseph. "Our counterparts are bringing it up to the next level. But we need to find the funds to hire a coach and to find more ice time for the team to train."

Since Harrold took up his role in June 2014, he has introduced fitness conditioning and even floorball into their off-ice training.

Team member Kevin Koh, 36, noted: "Training is more structured and disciplined now.

"Previously, we had no system, no off-ice training. Now we have psychological and video sessions, warm-up, physical training."

Raffles Institution Year 5 student Ryan Tan, the youngest member in the team at 17, described the new perspectives he has learnt. "Previously we didn't know how to position ourselves defensively. We tended to just follow the puck.

"But we have learnt to look out for players and pass it around instead of just aiming to get the puck."

Even though the SEA Games are 16 months away, some players concede the gold medal is out of Singapore's reach.

One of the most experienced players in the squad, Michael Loh, 40, said: "At this level, we are not ready to take on Thailand. We don't have enough game exposure to compete at a high, fast-paced level ."

Team-mate Johan Venema, 20, said: "We don't just want to say 'thanks for the opportunity that has been given to us' and then flop at the SEA Games.

"I know certain sports like fencing might be cut, so we know we must perform, step up to win a medal. It's our duty."

The players' determination clearly shows that they are not ready to put their dreams on ice.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2016, with the headline 'Ice hockey team faces daunting task'. Print Edition | Subscribe