SOFIA – Chinese Taipei is the only IIHF Member who has participated in the U18 and/or U20 World Championships, but never in the men’s competition. Maybe in a year this fact will no longer exist as the Asian nation’s ice hockey development program is making positive steps forward.
Fresh from the win in the 2014 IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia (16-22 March in Abu Dhabi), Kristof Kovago is back behind the bench for the Chinese Taipei’s U18 squad in the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division III Group A in Sofia, Bulgaria. He was a professional player, the captain for his home country Hungary in the 1995-96 U20 events and participated on the men’s level too. A serious knee injury put an end to his playing career, but Kovago found a way to stay in the game he loves.
He was the head coach for all South African teams in the IIHF male’s competitions in 2004-05 (U18, U20 and Men) and before that to the women’s team in 2003. On his 38th birthday, at the Winter Sports Palace in Sofia, he took time to reflect on the progress Chinese Taipei makes in the very competitive world of ice hockey.
“When I started eight years ago we hardly had 30 players in the same age group. That has changed. This year we had a selection camp for the U18 team with 80 players attending. That’s a lot comparing to the first time we participated in the 2008 IIHF U18 World Championship. Actually, at that time, we had to ask players to come to play, because we didn’t have enough. But this age group is now in the seniors’ level, it’s a very strong group and this year we’ll apply and hopefully we’ll be able to play in Men’s Division III next year. I’m sure we can do well there.”
When he was still on contract with South Africa, Kovago went to Vierumäki, Finland, for a coaching clinic and he met the manager of the Chinese Taipei Ice Hockey Federation. A brand-new ice rink was just built in Taipei City and he was approached with an offer to start a program there. The following year the things in South Africa didn’t go the way he wanted, so Kovago was free to go to Asia.
“Before I started there was no organized national team. So we started this project and two years we practiced with 15-16-year-old kids. My plan was that I’ll take those kids all the way to the men’s level. To have success in this part of the world you need to understand the Asian culture, especially the Chinese culture. It’s not like the Japanese or Korean. It’s completely different. The parents are very concerned for their kids. They try to be in control of everything. So the coaches have a really difficult job to actually run the team,” says Kovago.
Since 2008 Chinese Taipei has played regularly in the IIHF U18 Championship Division III. In 2008 they lost only to the host Mexico (10-1), but won against South Africa (9-3), New Zealand (8-6) and Mongolia (13-4). Taipei City was hosting the event in 2011 and after the round robin games (1-5 vs. Australia, 9-2 vs. Turkey and 2-4 vs. Bulgaria) the team was on third place, but made a remarkable comeback from 3-5 before the third period to 6-5 against Bulgaria in the semi-finals. In the final Australia was once again too strong for the hosts – 6-2.
In 2009-10 and in 2013 the Asian country with population of 23.4 million finished in third place and the worst result was fifth in 2012. Chinese Taipei played only twice in the U20 Division III Championship – 5th in 2010 and 7th in 2011.
“The players and the federation have the desire to succeed. The problem is that the government doesn’t really support ice hockey. It’s not a major sport for them. They support baseball and basketball. So there is only one standard-size ice rink and from 9am to 9pm there is always public skating. The potential is there, you can see that the players are improving, but after a while they can’t improve anymore, because there is no proper league, there is no money in the league, there is no competition,” Kovago explains.
Coming back from Sofia to Taipei City he has to negotiate a new contract. Based on the team’s play in Bulgaria he has to be a lock for few more years.
“To be honest, my expectations were for one or two wins, because it’s a very young team. It looks like we exceeded that and it’s a very pleasant surprise. The kids stood up, they are not scared. They try their best and I respect that, I like it,” the coach said after the dramatic turn-around against Bulgaria on Thursday – from 0-1 to 3-1 in the last 12 minutes of the game.
Chinese Taipei lost 2-1 to Australia in Day 1, but won in shootout 3-2 against New Zealand the following day. A boarding penalty in the third period was the key to a lost game with Israel – from 3-2 to 3-7. The first two goals for the Israeli team in the comeback were scored on the long five-minute power play.
“Our strengths are stamina and skating. We like to keep the other team under pressure with rolling all four lines. We have to be patient and the goals will come. The kids still don’t know how to handle the nerves. Ten of them are only 15-16 years old, but they’re fast learners. I had problems with the federation and with parents, because I left home some older players. I did it because they are on the same level as the younger ones, who’ll have two to three more years in this age group and will gain valuable experience. The kids who had played in these tournaments before are not nervous, they are calm in crucial situations in the games,” said Kovago, who year after year follows this concept bringing at least half of dozen 15- to 16-year-old players.
He is not looking for fast results, using just the top two lines as most of the teams on this level. And he is realistic about the place of the U18 team at the moment: “We don’t belong to Division II yet. It won’t be good for hockey in Chinese Taipei if we go up and come back next year. This doesn’t make sense for me. My philosophy is playing with four lines no matter what, because I want to develop players, not one or two, but a good team. Against Bulgaria for example I had two power play lines, but in the end I used a third line who scored a goal with a man advantage. I want to give the experience to more players and they proved that this is a good concept.
“We have a very successful program. Every weekend we have a development camp for kids under 12 and there are almost 150 kids coming, so we have to separate them into groups. Some weekends we have 60 kids on the ice at one time. And they are very good players, because we use inline hockey as well. When we have not so much ice time, we have to do it that way.”
The 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division III Group A in Sofia will finish today with the last three games: Chinese Taipei – Mexico (at 12:00 CET), Bulgaria – Israel (15:30) and Australia – New Zealand (19:00).
Two teams - Australia (9 points) and Bulgaria (6) have chances for promotion to Division II Group B for 2015, but the “Kangaroos” need only one point to secure the first place. In the same time Bulgaria is in danger of relegation with the other four teams: Israel (6), Mexico (6), Chinese Taipei (5) and New Zealand (4). The different scenarios with all the teams involved are making a very exciting last day of play in the Winter Sports Palace.