Ice hockey makes a surprising debut in the Kingdom, with preparations for the 2017 Southeast Asia Games already under way
On Monday night, with the temperature outside still above 30 degrees, a group of mostly expats and a few Cambodians batted around a puck in the first practice for what it is hoped could become a Cambodian ice hockey league.
Slicing through the fog that shrouds the ice, they swooped around the rink at Aeon Mall’s Ice Park Cambodia.
The session was the fulfilment of a long-held dream for the members of the Cambodian Hockey League, who for the past eight years have been playing ball hockey outside in the Kingdom’s sweltering heat.
The rink still wasn’t equipped with goals or protective netting – needed to stop errant pucks from smashing nearby glass and spectators – so it was impossible to play a proper game, but the players were still thrilled to be on the ice with their sticks.
“It was great,” said Yuriy Zhukov, one of the organisers of the Cambodian Hockey League. “We just practised passing, drills and offensive positioning.”
Zhukov, 28, who started playing ice hockey at university in his native Kazakhstan, is something of an evangelist for the sport.
Players learned the values of teamwork and persistence, he said.
“It’s a very fast game. You have to think fast and be athletic – it’s not just a game for huge, dumb guys.”
Zhukov said that while ball hockey – which uses similar rules to ice hockey but without skates – was fun, nothing could match the speed and exhilaration of ice hockey.
“It’s the best game in the world,” he said, adding that it wasn’t just expats who were being converted.
While only a handful of Cambodians played on Monday night, dozens more have signed up to ice hockey training sessions.
Seng Bunteung, 25, who worked at the affiliated Kids City rink as a skate instructor before joining the team at the Ice Park, spent Thursday night with two other young players drilling plays straight from the North American National Hockey League.
“A lot of people are interested in playing ice hockey, especially younger people,” he said afterwards. “Everyone’s into doing sport for fun and health these days, and ice hockey is something new to Cambodia.”
Of the more than 20 Cambodians who had started to learn how to play ice hockey, a few were workers from the ice park but most were customers who skated frequently, he said.
“Compared to other sports, ice hockey is much better,” he said. “Cambodia’s weather is so hot you get so exhausted, but for ice hockey you can play it in the cool room on ice.
“You will sweat of course, but you feel better than the outdoor sports.”
Cambodia is one of the few remaining Southeast Asian countries where ice hockey is not played. Its adoption of the sport comes at a good time: Malaysia is currently pushing to have ice hockey played at the 2017 Southeast Asian Games.
Dennis Romatz, who grew up playing ice hockey in northern Michigan and has a background in fitness training figure skaters and ice hockey players, is the new general manager of the ice park.
The 48-year-old, who has been running informal training sessions for about six weeks, said goals and netting around the rink would be installed in the coming weeks so players could start playing three-on-three or four-on-four games. A pro shop selling gear is also planned.
Romatz admitted that with a full set of gear going for between $500 and $1,500, cost was a big hurdle for new players.
But he said that with about 30 committed players, there was a good chance Cambodia could soon field a national team.
“The players I’ve got are coming along really quickly,” he said.
“They’re easy to work with and they just love to skate.”
Romatz said the goal was for the Kingdom to be able to compete at the 2017 Southeast Asia Games.
“We’re not looking for an Olympic medal or anything, we just want to get a team together.”
The Cambodian Hockey League ice hockey sessions are on every Monday at 8pm at Aeon Mall’s Ice Park Cambodia. Entry is $10 or $8 for children and skates are available for hire. More details: iceparkcambodia.com