The Malaysian duo went to Lustenau, a town in Austria at the border to Switzerland, thanks to Christian Weber and the support of the Malaysia Ice Hockey Federation. The former Swiss national team player is the head coach of EHC Lustenau, which plays in the cross-border Alps Hockey League with teams from Austria, Italy and Slovenia. Weber has also travelled several times to Asia as a mentor coach through the IIHF Asian Committee including to Malaysia.
“Christian came to Malaysia for a camp with the national team and the juniors,” said Lim. That opened the doors for the two players to go the other way.
“When we got the news, we came to Lustenau already after two days,” Tan added.
26-year-old Tan is a veteran of two Asian Winter Games and has played for Malaysia in the IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia program during the past seven years. He was the team’s scoring leader last season just before 20-year-old Lim, a rising star in Malaysian ice hockey.
“When they came first time they first asked whether everything is safe, whether they can walk around normally. It was unusual for them to take a 10-minute walk to the ice rink rather than taking the car,” Weber remembers the first encounter after their arrival. It was their first time in Europe.
“First we were shy and didn’t want to bother the team as they prepared for the season but we got a good connection to the players,” said Tan.
In Lustenau they had the chance to practise with the semi-pro team from the Alps Hockey League, with EHC Lustenau’s farm team that plays in the regional league of Vorarlberg and also help local instructors in youth hockey. “Brandon is also U17 national team coach and gives individual lessons to kids so it was good for them to look into the whole organization,” Weber said.
They also played three official exhibition games with the farm team while travelling with the first team to games they had in Austria and in Winterthur, Switzerland. It’s a different hockey culture with ice rinks in small towns in Austria and Switzerland rather than ice sheets in huge shopping malls back in Asia. Which also meant a different quality of ice for the duo.
“They were different characters but it was a good fit. They took a lot with them about hockey and the cultural experience. They were able to learn a lot. We’re kind of semi-professional but it was still a good opportunity to learn from an organization of this size,” said Weber.
They also discovered bike riding to see the area. Like in Lim’s photo after a 45-minute ride to Lake Constance.
Tin even lost five kilos. Not because of the different food but because he was on the ice that often.
“They actually loved the food, we showed them the Austrian and Swiss specialties. And they loved the cheese and every meal done with cheese. And since it’s Austria they ate of course schnitzels. We offered them more Asian and spicy stuff but they wanted to try out all the local specialties of the two countries,” Weber remembered.
How would the coach compare the level of play between what he has in Lustenau and in Malaysia?
“They can play hockey! People here first think when they hear about Malaysia that they can’t do anything on the ice. But they are skilled, skate well, shoot well but they don’t have much game experience and are physically behind compared to the players here. In Malaysia they don’t play physically, so playing a game here was a shock and one of them skated into a rough bodycheck but he just stood up and continued,” Weber said.
“They are two of the best Malaysian players. In Switzerland they could probably play in the second amateur league (fifth tier). When I was in Thailand I also saw two players there who are incredibly skilled and fast but they would still have to adapt to a more physical and tactical game. They work well in Thailand, we just don’t see it in Europe and think of Thailand or Malaysia rather as a country to go for vacation.”
For Lim and Tan it’s neither vacation back home nor during their journey in Europe.
“It’s much faster and more aggressive than what we do in Malaysia. We don’t do so much body-checking. In Lustenau there was also more focus on strategies,” Tan explained.
The duo’s next stop will be Manila in the Philippines for the five-team ice hockey tournament of the 2019 Southeast Asian Games in early December that beside their team and the host country also includes Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia.
In March Malaysia will for the first time compete in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program same as the Philippines. They will join the newly created Division IV that will take place in Bishkek and also include the teams from Kuwait and host nation Kyrgyzstan.