BANGKOK – The 2013 IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia will kick off on Saturday in Bangkok as ten Asian nations get set to battle it out in the capital of Thailand.
The tournament doesn’t include the pinnacle of Asian hockey with national teams like Japan, Korea or China but is designed for Asian nations where hockey is in a developing stage that compete either in the lowest tier of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program or don’t take part in World Championship events right now.
The United Arab Emirates won the tournament last year in Dehradun, India (stories, videos) and enter the tournament as the defending champions. The Emirates also qualified for the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III that will be played next month in Cape Town, South Africa.
Host Thailand is probably the closest nation that could potentially fulfil the criteria to play in the World Championship program in the near future and will be more than motivated to challenge the Emirates again.
In last year’s tournament the Thai won all but two games – a 4-3 loss in the preliminary round and a 3-0 defeat in the gold medal game, both times against the Emirati.
For Thailand it will also be a milestone since it will be the first-ever IIHF tournament to be hosted in the country. Games will take place at The Rink Ice Arena, which is located on the top floor of the seven-storey shopping mall Central Plaza Grand Rama 9 and has an international-size ice sheet.
This year’s Challenge Cup of Asia includes ten teams that are split between two tiers, but all participants have a chance to end up hoisting the trophy. The five teams from Group A and the best three teams from Group B will make it to the quarter-finals.
Apart from the UAE and Thailand, Group A also includes Malaysia, Chinese Taipei and Kuwait.
Malaysia claimed third place last year after defeating Kuwait 5-3 in the placement game. The Kuwaiti will again play in the upper tier as the second nation from the Gulf Region beside the Emirates.
Chinese Taipei won the tournament in 2008 and on home ice in 2010. Busy hosting the U18 World Championship Division III Group A in Taipei City right now, the association hopes to see their men’s national team get back to past glory in this competition.
India and Macau return to the event in Group B. India won its first international game last year 5-1 against Macau after having started international ice hockey with a 0-12 record. Although ice hockey is not widespread in this huge country, the sport is very popular in the northern region of Ladakh where most players come from.
Defending fifth place won’t be easy for the Indians since three teams are making a comeback after having missed the Challenge Cup of Asia last year. Mongolia shares the Indians’ passion for outdoor hockey in freezing weather conditions while Hong Kong is back after a one-year hiatus and winning the event in 2011 when it was held in Kuwait.
Singapore also stages a comeback in the Challenge Cup of Asia after having missed the last two events. With a new rink opened in the country, the team hopes to convert better preparation in its new facility to improvement in the Asian competition.
“With ten participating teams the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia will reach its all-time high but this also brings its challenges with it,” says IIHF Vice President Thomas Wu. “In the next Asian Strategic Planning Group Meeting we will discuss how to structure the Challenge Cup of Asia tournaments in future.”
The event includes 28 games that will be played over nine days and 280 people will be active on the ice or in the organization.
The tournament is not only about increasing the level of play in Asian countries but also officials. 16 referees and linesmen were called to the tournament in Bangkok coming from eight different Asian countries.
“A tournament of this size brings its own challenges with it, especially in the logistical area,” says IIHF Asian Sport Development Manager Harry Springfeld shortly before the first puck drop. “We are very happy to have a good team with a lot of heart and enthusiasm here to put the puzzle together.”
The tournament opens with Mongolia vs. India. Singapore-Macau will be the other game in Group B on Saturday. Malaysia will face defending champion United Arab Emirates in the early game of Group A before host Thailand will play Kuwait.
The Preliminary Round runs from Saturday until Thursday. The Final Round with quarter-finals, semi-finals and placement games will start next Friday.
Scores, statistics and photos will be published here following the games.