Taipei excited despite adversity
by Andy Potts|14 DEC 2019
photo: Carles Iturbe
It’s been a tough weekend for Chinese Taipei. Beaten 11-0 by Spain in the opening game, and then defeated 14-1 by the Netherlands, life in Barcelona has been a steep learning curve for the team that won through Group O in the first qualification phase.

But lopsided scorelines have not dimmed the enthusiasm of the team, nor its small but proud army of fans in Spain. After the game against the Dutch, those supporters called their team up to the tribune for a reception more befitting a tournament winner than a country on the wrong end of a heavy loss.

And no wonder. This is the biggest stage for hockey in Chinese Taipei since 2011 when the team contested the top group at the Asian Winter Games. That event brought match-ups with the region’s big hitters; since then opportunities to play bigger nations have been limited as the country focuses on life in the World Championship Division III.

Chou-En Sang was still a child when that tournament took place. Now he’s revelling in the chance to play against the strongest opposition to take on Chinese Taipei in his hockey career to date.

“Some of my older team-mates have talked to me about playing against Kazakhstan, Japan and Korea at an Asian event, but this one here in Barcelona is pretty big too,” he said. “It’s a good experience for us.

“We’re learning a lot. We never get a chance to play big countries and back home we don’t even get to play a lot of games among ourselves because we have such limited ice time. So we want to make the most of this and use it to prepare for our next World Championship campaign in Luxembourg in April.”

Sang, meanwhile, is something of an anomaly on the team. Among a roster of largely home-based players getting a dozen games a season in the four-team local championship, he stands out for his time with the Rouen Dragons. It was a brave move for the youngster, aged just 16 at the time, to go for a trial at one of the leading clubs in France; having a French father helped, but his skating skills got him into the system in Normandy.

That was in 2016, when it felt like there was no future as a player back home, on an island where one ice rink serves a population of more than 23 million. Since then, Rouen has provided a hockey education. Still only 19, Sang – known as Yohann Alzon in France – made his international debut last season when he represented Chinese Taipei in U20 and senior World Championship play.

Developing fast, Sang is hoping to bring a touch of European knowhow to the Taipei team. “I’ve learned a lot over there, it’s so different from hockey in Taiwan,” Sang added. “It’s like a totally different game. It’s hard even to explain, but it’s like learning real hockey. The systems, the plays, the tactics. I’m trying to bring back some stuff to help the guys here.”

Not many players on the team get the chance to test themselves away from home; those on the island have to cope with limited resources that make it hard to progress the game. Not only is there just one rink, but it is open for public skating for 12 hours a day. That leaves just the graveyard slots – late night, early morning – for specialist hockey practice. The dedication and commitment of head coach Ryan Lang, on the national team coaching staff since 2014/15, has seen the country take several steps forward since beginning regular IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship play in 2016/17 but there are many challenges.

“I think most of us started out playing roller hockey,” Sang added. “We love the thought of ice hockey but that’s not possible for a lot of people. There just isn’t the ice time.

“We’re trying to develop the sport, but it’s hard. There’s not a lot of support, not a lot of sponsorship. But everyone has that passion and we’re doing all we can to make it better together.”

And as for coach Lang, who also takes charge of the U18 and U20 teams, there is nothing but praise. “This isn’t even his real, full-time job. He’s just so passionate and gives so much of his time for us. That’s awesome.”