SAPPORO, Japan – Mongolia evened its record at 2-2 in the Asian Winter Games on Thursday with an impressive 7-6 victory over Hong Kong. While the result was nice, the players enjoyed the extra benefit of playing with a roof over their heads at Mikaho Gymnasium.
Putting together a respectable national team is no easy feat in Mongolia, where there are no indoor rinks. The players not only must have passion for the game, they also must be able to deal with the elements while training in the depths of winter.
Mongolia coach Arslan Mergen spoke after his team's victory about the challenge of organizing a squad and developing players in his country.
“We have just 20 open rinks,” Mergen stated. “Mongolia is a very big country. All the conditions we are playing in outdoors, sometimes at -35° C, are different. To come here and play indoors it's a different feeling. If we want to move up to a different level, we definitely need to have an indoor building.”
The fact that the team has to train outdoors also means that they are faced with an abbreviated training period each year.
“We can basically only practise from November until February. After that it melts out,” noted Mergen.
“We normally only have one tournament a year outside of Mongolia and that is the Challenge Cup of Asia,” he said. “Basically we are playing on the lakes and the rivers. We have a lack of hockey equipment in Mongolia. We have approximately 150-200 kids playing on the open-ice conditions. We have a lack of a lot of things, but we love hockey.”
Mergen, who also doubles as a translator for the team, clearly is grateful for the opportunity to get his players some game action in traditional hockey conditions.
Mergen's unit is definitely showing progress. Currently 50th in the IIHF World Ranking, Mongolia put six goals on the board in the first period against Hong Kong and then held on for the win.
“This has been a great experience to have all these hockey teams from Asia,” Mergen commented. “It’s like 20 different countries. I want to thank the Japanese people for organizing this event.”
Mergen said that what his charges lack in tools, they make up for in commitment.
“We don't have much infrastructure in Mongolia, so to get to this level it takes the players hearts and souls,” he said. “It is a difficult process. When you play outdoors vs. indoors, the ice surface is different. I'm very happy that my players can switch from outdoors to indoors at this high level and beat Hong Kong or Singapore.”
Mergen, who attended Hope International University in Anaheim, California, lived in the United States for eight years.
“I grew up in Mongolia, then my parents lived in Russia and that is where I learned my hockey skills,” he stated. “I went to Luzhniki Hockey School. I developed there and then played hockey when I was going to school in the U.S.”
Mongolia goalie Baatarkhuu Bazarvaani has been a member of the national team for 10 years. The 26-year-old works as driver when he is not playing.
“I'm very excited about playing in the Asian Winter Games,” he said on Thursday. “I want to say thank you to all the people. It's been really nice here.”
Forward Gerelt Ider, a 19-year-old student, is currently in his third year with the national squad.
“I am very happy that I fit into the national team,” he commented. “I have been enjoying my time with my teammates in Sapporo.”
Veteran defenceman Batgerel Zorigt, who admires NHL star Sidney Crosby, has been impressed with the level of opposition Mongolia has faced here.
“There are a lot of countries and they have brought really good teams,” he said. “The only difference is that they practice 365 days and we only practice three-and-a-half months. I have a lot of respect for the other teams, they are very highly skilled.”
Goalie Munkhbold Bayarsaikhan, a four-year member of the national team, has found himself on the end of some high-velocity shots from opponents in the tournament.
“The other teams shoot the puck very strongly,” he noted. “The team is very happy we won this game.”
Playing the Asian Winter Games in February opposed to the spring dates for the Challenge Cup of Asia suits the Mongolians. After a tight 5-4 loss to Thailand they blanked Singapore 8-0, lost to the United Arab Emirates 6-3 and beat Hong Kong 8-6. Tomorrow they will play their last game in the men’s Division I tournament against Chinese Taipei.
Thailand is currently leading the round-robin competition with 11 points before the last day with Chinese Taipei with 9 points being the only other team in the race for tournament win.
for scores from the four ice hockey tournaments at the 2017 Asian Winter Games.