A first for Mongolia

Outdoor players win Challenge Cup of Asia

10.04.2018
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The Mongolian players cheer on a goal in their deciding win against Thailand at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia. Photo: FIHL

For the first time ever, Mongolia has won an IIHF tournament! The men’s national team won a tight three-team race for first at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia with a 4-1 record, beating out Thailand and host Philippines.

For Mongolia this victory marks a huge milestone. The country joined the IIHF in 1999 when it participated in the ice hockey tournament of the Asian Winter Games, and between 2007 and 2013 also played briefly at the lowest level of the World Championship program. Until the last year at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Qualification, the men’s and U18 teams combined for 35 losses in 35 games before the Mongolians blanked Georgia for its first-ever win, 6-0.

The lack of a suitable indoor ice arena has made life difficult for the players to shine on the international stage but their remarkable passion has kept them in the game. According to the Mongolian Ice Hockey Federation there are 19 outdoor rinks in the vast country of three million people, several of them international size. But there exist only two smaller indoor rinks, including a new one that opened in the Hunnu Mall close to the airport of Ulaanbaatar. These are too small to play a proper hockey game and the outdoor rinks are only available for two or three months in the winter.

In Mongolia, ice hockey is an outdoor sport, as are other ice sports. Hockey connects people when the game is played at rinks between apartment buildings in the capital city, or somewhere outside in rural Mongolia at temperatures of anything between freezing point and -30°C. Every game is a Winter Classic in Mongolia.

The Mongolian championships are played outdoor but switching indoor can prove difficult for the national team, especially if there’s no more ice back home. They try to make up for such deficits in true Mongolian style: by playing passionate, physical hockey.

“We normally only have one tournament a year outside of Mongolia and that is the Challenge Cup of Asia,” head coach Mergen Arslan said during an interview on IIHF.com last year. “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. We don’t have much infrastructure in Mongolia, so to get to this level it takes the players hearts and souls.”

In the IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia the Mongolians have found more success than in previous forays into the World Championship program. This competition was created primarily for the smaller Asian hockey programs that don’t fulfil the minimum participation standards for the World Championship tournaments. Since its first season in 2008 it was mostly won by Chinese Taipei (6), the United Arab Emirates (3) and Hong Kong (1). Since those programs have outgrown the Challenge Cup of Asia and its men’s national teams now play in World Championship tournaments, it was the turn for a new country to hoist the trophy.

The 2018 edition turned out to become a three-team race for first place between Mongolia, which moved up as top-seeded nation, Thailand, and newcomer Philippines, which hosted the event at the SM Mall of Asia Ice Skating Rink outside of the capital of Manila.

Mongolia has in recent years improved within its group and got off to a good start. They turned a 2-1 deficit against Singapore into a 5-3 win and one day later did the same against recently-promoted Kuwait, skating to an 11-2 win. Goals came from ten different players, with Shinebayar Tsogtoo scoring a pair.

Then came the game against the hosts, whom Mongolia had never played before. Tournament scoring leader and MVP Steven Fuglister, the brother of former Swiss World Juniors player Jeffrey Fuglister who moved to work and play in his mother’s country some years ago, had his scoring show on home ice netting, putting up four against Mongolia and 12 in four games. His opening marker was followed by a 5-on-3 goal from Patrick Russell Syquiatco to give the Philippines a 2-0 lead. Mongolia battled hard to come back and outshot the hosts 42-29 but Gianpietro Iseppi had a strong game in the Philippines’ net and the hosts defended the lead for the final score of 6-5.

The loss was not the end of the world for Mongolia. Because the Philippines had lost the opening game 7-4 to Thailand it eventually became a three-team race between these countries. The Philippines were up 2-0 in that game but Thailand found its way back thanks to five markers from its first line including two each from Masato Kitayama, a Thai-Japanese player who spent this season in Finland’s third U20 league, and Phandaj Khuhakaew.

The game on Day 5 between Mongolia and Thailand was to decide the top of the standings. Thailand, undefeated after the opening-day win and an 11-0 blanking of Singapore, could secure first place with one day left while a regulation-time win for Mongolia would likely hand them first place as well.

The Mongolians started strong and had many shots but this time they capitalized better on their chances. After a 1-0 first-period lead thanks to Batbilguun Chuluunbat’s goal the Mongolians increased the lead to 3-0 and 4-1 in the middle frame after goals from Batzaya Purevdorj, Batgerel Zorigt and Mishigsuren Namjil. Tamir Gandbold made it 5-1 in the third period. All three lines scored in the win and the Mongolians would win a three-team tie in points thanks to the better goal difference in the head-to-head games they had following the game. They only had to hope that they wouldn’t be tied with the Philippines alone, but with both teams or none. And that’s what happened on the last day when Thailand expectedly beat Kuwait 12-1 while the Philippines steamrolled Singapore 15-0.

For Mongolia and its program that is fighting for an indoor rink it was a historic success, while silver medallist Thailand was ranked behind Mongolia for the sixth consecutive year in the Challenge Cup of Asia.

The Philippines, who started to compete internationally only last year at the Asian Winter Games and the Southeast Asia Games, confirmed their strong start into the world of hockey although they may have hoped for another colour than bronze, after winning the Southeast Asia Games ahead of Thailand in August. But as first-time participant and first-time host of an IIHF tournament the future looks bright for the Philippines, who may get an additional boost with the 30th Southeast Asian Games hosted in their country in 2019.

While the top-three teams were a class of their own, Singapore and Kuwait had a tight battle for fourth place. Goals from Wee Chew and Zhiyang Liu gave Singapore a two-goal lead but the Kuwaitis improved in a middle frame with four consecutive power plays. The fourth was converted when Jasem Alawadhi scored with 26 seconds left.

A double minor for high-sticking against Jiaju Ryan Tan early in the third gave Kuwait another chance and Mohammad Al Maraqi capitalized on it to tie the game at two. The game was eventually decided with the last shot of the five-round shootout when Singapore’s Richard O’Brien scored the game-winner to keep his team in the top division of the program while Kuwait finished in last place.

Click here for scores, stats and highlight videos.

MARTIN MERK

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