When I recall the conversation that led to me coaching the Philippine Men’s National Hockey Team, I can only smirk. I had been playing shinny with players from the National Hockey Team for a few months, got to know them pretty well, and was welcomed to their invitational golf tournament. We were sitting in the clubhouse after our round of golf, enjoying our San Miguel Lights, when the topic of the team roster came up. Feeling confident, I looked at the team captain, Steven “Swiss” Füglister, and said “I could definitely crack this lineup. Who do I have to fight?” When the laughter died down, he calmly explained that they didn’t need another player, they needed a coach.
As much as I’ve grown to love Swiss, I remember hating that answer. I was a player, not a coach. My hockey career was a long one and I had had some minor success playing junior hockey and at Carleton University. While I had a decent slapshot and a physical game, I did not have Philippine citizenship. The more I thought about it though, the more the idea of coaching began to appeal to me. I had to face it, I wasn’t getting any younger and the opportunity to build a hockey program in South East Asia was a challenge I couldn’t resist.
Whenever I mention that I’m a hockey coach on the Philippine National Team, everyone has the same two reactions: “The Philippines has a hockey team?” and “Isn’t that cute!” Not a traditional hockey nation, Manila features one hockey rink in a country of 110 million people located at a shopping mall on Manila Bay. When I started playing here, the hockey community was very welcoming but fractured. A lifetime of hockey politics had splintered a small community into even smaller parts. In the absence of a “governing body”, pre-pandemic hockey in Manila had been marred with scandals and in-fighting generated by over-involved parents, expats, and organizers. In hockey terms, the locker room was divided and with no possibility of trades. Even a bronze medal at the South East Asia games in 2019 in Manila could not fully repair the growing rift as, shortly after this win, the pandemic put a stop to hockey in the Philippines altogether.
When I arrived in 2021, hockey was just restarting but it was struggling, as participation was low. Many of the expats who had played in the league had left during the pandemic and the turnover in the head coach position created a lot of uncertainty within the hockey community. There was no league, there was no ice time, and the outlook for restarting the league was bleak. After a great outpouring of support at the grassroots level from the hockey community, the Philippine Ice Hockey Federation hired Juhani Ijas as the Head Coach. In South East Asia terms, this was a major signing as Ijas had won gold with Thailand in 2019 at the South East Asia games as Head Coach. Given all the turmoil within the hockey community and the fact that the National Team had spent the last three years in lockdown, the announcement of Juhani’s arrival was met with muted optimism.
Having spent my life in the hockey world, I knew immediately what a coach with Juhani’s pedigree could do for hockey in the Philippines. For anyone still doubting his impact, they needed to look no further than what was happening on the ice. The league became organized, the game was being marketed to the curious locals, and players were getting better with his coaching. More importantly, he was a “no nonsense” coach who did not care about the internal conflict and whose sole focus was on building the best possible team to go to the World Championships in Mongolia.
After chatting with Juhani one day, it became clear that winning a gold medal would be the best thing for hockey in the Philippines. Nothing would let bygones be bygones like a victory on the world stage, so this is exactly what we set out to do. When I look back now, I think I had accepted to be his Assistant Coach before he even offered me the job. When he did offer me the job, I accepted before thinking about what it would mean for my wife and four kids. Caught up in all the excitement and the possibilities, I momentarily forgot my responsibilities.
Fortunately, my wife is a former professional hockey player herself and well understood that the opportunity to win gold at the World Championships is truly “once in a lifetime”. As any great hockey player will tell you, it is hard work and the support of friends and family that make success possible. While I was coaching hockey four nights a week for the past three months, she managed a household of four kids under eight years old. Had she not been so supportive and understanding, my story would end right here. As it turns out though, her backing of this adventure made all that came next possible.
It is probably not a surprise to learn that the Philippines has never competed at a World Hockey Championship. Faced with the Division 4 World Championships in Mongolia three months away, Juhani and I set about to finalize the team roster. Having already played with many of the players vying for a roster spot, I had a good sense of the talent we were working with and felt cautiously optimistic about our chances of winning. We knew from past games that the Philippines could probably beat Indonesia and Kuwait, but that the real gold winning game of the round-robin tournament would be against Mongolia. With the competition set in our sights, the weeks leading up to the tournament were a grind as both players and coaches set out to prepare themselves to beat Mongolia on home ice.
As the Assistant Coach, my assignments were to work with the defencemen and special teams. In a sort of good cop/bad cop divide, Juhani and I also decided that the Assistant Coach who had played with the team for years could be the person players turn to when they have an issue they are too shy to bring to the Head Coach. I like to think that this approach created a positive atmosphere in the locker room and made a more receptive audience for coaching the team on defence, power plays and penalty kills. While we worked with the team four nights a week to refine their game, the team really began to mesh, and the excitement leading into the World Championships was palpable.
Prior to hosting the World Championships, Mongolia had never had an indoor rink. For the occasion, the President of Mongolia commissioned the construction of the Steppe Arena. Designed by a Canadian architect, the arena was a truly a state-of-the-art facility that seated 3,500 fans and featured a giant video screen and scoreboard. When we first stepped into the arena, our jaws dropped at the quality of the dressing rooms and saunas. By contrast, our team had been dressing in a room at a shopping mall that had doubled as a storage facility. The ice surface itself in Mongolia was professional grade and maintained by two state-of-the-art Zambonis. The players actually took some time to get used to the speed of the ice surface. Again, for contrast, Filipino hockey players are used to playing on ice that is melting quickly and skating through thick fog for most of the third period.
Based on the quality of the rink and the police escort our bus received to and from our hotel, it was clear that we had arrived on the big stage. As coaches, we can only get the players ready and have to let them play when the time comes. Would our guys be ready for the bright lights and roar of the crowd? We had been playing in near total silence and for a handful of curious mall shoppers up to this point. We ran through a few practices before our first game against Indonesia. Our message to the players at this point was that the pressure was all on Mongolia and we needed to play “loose”, have fun, and no fighting. Mongolia had a new million-dollar rink, the President of Mongolia would be in attendance, and the game with the Philippines was marketed on national TV for the Saturday night time slot. For Mongolia, losing on home ice would not be an option, and it was clear that the pressure was all on them.
After practice, we returned to the dinner buffet at the Holiday Inn and checked out some local TV. Much to our surprise, we found that our team practice had been recorded and that a panel of pundits were dissecting our goalie’s weak spots. Growing up, I had heard of this sort of thing happening in international hockey events but had never imagined that I would be featured. In a way, it was both alarming and satisfying. If they were going to record our practices, then it was clear that they viewed us as a major threat. Let the head games begin!
Fast-forwarding through the March 23, 2023 Indonesia game, which we won 14-0, we were getting ready for the big game on March 25, 2023 against Mongolia. I should point out an interesting cultural difference between Filipino and Canadian players. Usually before a big game, Canadians like to put on loud music and build up some energy before hitting the ice. While Filipinos love music (and sing better than anyone I’ve ever hung out with), they stop all music in order to say a team prayer before taking the ice. This brief moment of introspection and gratitude is something I had never seen before with a hockey team but really did help to center them and momentarily remove any distraction.
For our goalies (who happen to be cousins), this quiet moment probably meant much more since the matriarch of their family (and the first Miss Philippines ever) had passed away the day before. With the added inspiration of playing for her, the stakes could not have been higher but our goalies remained mentally strong. Their goalie coach, J-P Lassila, had helped them with a few of the finer points on technique that set our goalies apart from others at the tournament. Despite the loss of their family’s matriarch, our goalies looked cool and confident as the bright lights and loud music welcomed them to the ice.
I still don’t know the words of the Filipino national anthem but the moment I heard it played before this game, I felt an incredible honour to be standing beneath the flag with my team. While fighting back nerves, I had come to appreciate that my team had come together around a single goal, worked tirelessly to prepare for it, and was on the verge of achieving its objective. Win or lose, this was a truly special moment. The pride I felt at this moment was amplified by the enormous pride I felt as a Canadian diplomat. For better or worse, the world associates Canada with its love of hockey, and here I was sharing this passion with the Philippines. I was not the only Canadian badly wanting hockey gold for the Philippines as the support I received from my colleagues at the Embassy was overwhelming. Reading their messages of support on my phone while I took my position behind the bench (and should have been setting the lineup) only made me want to win the game even more. By all accounts, the stress of the situation was written on my face while I tried to play it cool.
All too often, a big game hyped up like this one tends to disappoint, as it can never match our expectations. Without any doubt, the Mongolia game against the Philippines will forever be a classic. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it on YouTube. It features an amazing back and forth, endless parades of minor penalties and high drama ending in OT.
As we were headed into OT, a strange thing happened. The crowd was deafening and shouting what I can only imagine are obscenities at the Filipinos. At this point, I had lost my voice from trying to shout encouragement over the roar of the crowd. Just when I had an inkling of doubt, I looked at my goalie and defenceman and saw them smiling. All I could think was, “Who smiles in a game like this?” Two minutes later, it was clear that only champions could smile at a moment like that because they have assured themselves of victory. We won the game 7-6.
Banged up and bruised, we defeated Kuwait 14-0 on March 26 and commenced the ritual celebrations. The contents of these celebrations will remain up to the reader’s imagination and will inevitably fall short of the reality. We returned to a hero’s welcome with photos and interviews at the airport. Clips of the game were all over the news in the Philippines, messages of congratulations from celebrities, and even a meeting with President Bong Bong Marcos himself. It felt surreal to see myself on the news and in messages, especially since I’m usually pretty closed off to social media. Unfortunately, I caught COVID and missed the opportunity to meet the President but such is life. Most importantly, I learned that my kids watched me coach on TV and cheered every time they saw me. Even now, when my toddler sees hockey on the screen she points and says “Dada!” This is exactly what I want my kids to think of when they see hockey on TV.
After all was said and done, the Philippines had won its first ever world championship and has been promoted to Division 3B. For now, it’s the off-season and we will restart the work of winning again in a few months. It’s not clear what the roster will look like next year but hockey is gaining traction here. I was amazed to learn that kids are writing in their yearbooks that they would like to play on the Philippine National Hockey Team. It seems that the “spark” needed to grow the game here has been found and it will be up to us, as coaches, to keep the fire lit.