SAPPORO, Japan – Thailand is a known throughout the world as an exotic travel destination. While hockey is just beginning to get on the radar in the Asian nation, encouraging signs are emerging.
The Thai women’s national team is 1-3 at the Asian Winter Games thus far, with a narrow victory over Hong Kong (5-4) but heavy losses to Korea (20-0), China (15-0) and today host Japan (37-0).
The Thai coach is Juhani Ijas, who hails from Finland, and has only been on the job for three weeks. He has been impressed with what he has seen so far from his team.
“The players are motivated by the opportunity to travel to Japan and take part in the Winter Games. That's the No. 1 thing,” said Ijas on Tuesday after a defeat to China at Tsukisamu Gymnasium. “They are used to playing against teams like Hong Kong, Malaysia or the United Arab Emirates. Now they have a chance to play Japan in a peak event like this, that's motivates them.”
Ijas says that his players have not been disheartened even by their big losses.
“It doesn't matter what the score is. They just want to play. They like the challenge,” stated Ijas.
Because hockey is still evolving in Thailand, Ijas's team features a wide range of ages among its players.
“There is a big variety. There are girls who are 17 years old, and some who are 37,” Ijas noted. “Some have had a break from hockey for 10 years. Some started last year. So there is a big gap.”
At this point, Ijas does not have a big pool of players to draw from.
“I have been told that there are only 38-40 female players in Thailand, so they have like a scrimmage league,” he said. “There are four teams of these national team players with 10 each.”
Goalie Angkulpattanasuk Wasunun, who hails from Bangkok, has been taking heavy fire from strong opponents here.
“I just clear my mind and focus only on the puck,” the 22-year-old commented when asked how she deals with the onslaught. “I have been playing for eight years. My brother started playing and my father wanted me to play and follow him.”
Hockey is a family affair for Angkulpattanasuk. Her brother is also playing here.
“My brother is the goalie for the Thailand men's team,” she said with a smile. “He likes Jonathan Quick, the goaltender for the L.A. Kings. I like him also. Whatever my brother likes, I just follow him.”
Defenceman Sakulsurarat Rungrawee, who speaks fluent English, said that Angkulpattanasuk's path to the game is not unusual in Thailand.
“Right now many young girls and kids are going to the rink and playing hockey,” she said. “They often follow their brothers like her.”
Sakulsurarat is 37 years old now and appears energized by her younger teammates.
“I stopped playing hockey for quite a while, but came back for this,” she stated. “It is quite an honour for me to be here with my girls. I am 10 or 15 years older than some of them.”
Thai captain Promdirat Kritsana, also 37, has been around the sport for a long time.
“I have played hockey for 13 years. I have been the captain for three years and on the national team for four years,” Promdirat said.
The Bangkok native recalled how she first became interested in hockey.
“I saw a movie about ice skating when I was young,” she recalled. “Then I went to a rink and there was a hockey competition. I saw that and said, ‘It's fun. I want to play.’ But I could not start at the time because my family would not let me play.”
Promdirat says the Thai players react with determination even after a big defeat.
“We cannot give up is our attitude,” she commented. “We have to create chances and try our best. We have to try hard.
“The players feel OK. They know we are playing with the top five in Asia. They know what they have to meet in this task.”
Promdirat pointed out the challenge the Thai players face in getting in practice time.
“Almost all of the players have to work full-time,” she said. “I'm a trainer and coach for little kids at the ice rink, for ice skating and hockey. If they show an interest in hockey, I teach them both together.”
Promdirat and her teammates are trying to look at the big picture at this point.
“This is the first time we have played in the Asian Winter Games,” she said. “We want to make the next time and the time after that better.”