New era for Mongolia
by Martin Merk|27 SEP 2022
Mergen Arslan (back row in the middle) with members of his hockey school in Ulaanbaatar.
The usual picture from ice hockey in Mongolia used to be tough guys playing on outdoor rinks in the winter. It was not only far below freezing point but usually also smoky due to the heating in the buildings around.

“It’s cold, so we need a lot of heating and the only source for heating is coal but we played, we have 16 outdoor rinks and now we have the new, beautiful Steppe Arena and another one that just opened at the 39th district school in Ulaanbaatar with a full-size rink and 500 seats,” said long-time national team player and coach Mergen Arslan.
Mongolian championships used to be played outdoor in cold winters like in this picture from the 2009/2010 season.
The 3,600-seat Steppe Arena that was constructed in the capital of Ulaanbaatar during the pandemic and opened in time for the 2021/2022 ice hockey season lifts ice hockey in the vast, landlocked Asian country to an entirely new level.

“The most important thing is that we opened the first Canadian-Mongolian joint hockey school. I have 150 kids practising there including many girls. We had tournaments from four-year-olds up to 16 years. It’s been a great experience last winter. The facility also has a basketball court where we can play floor hockey and there’s a fitness centre.”

Mergen Arslan works on his hockey school with the Swiss-Canadian brothers Boe and Nathan Leslie, who through the Canadian embassy and companies active in Mongolia also help getting gear for kids to the country.

“It’s great help because considering our economy hockey is a very expensive sport for us. It’s difficult to support hockey for parents and the gear is very helpful,” Arslan said.

During Arslan’s era as a player hockey was mostly played by adult men and youth hockey started at 10 at the outdoor rinks. Now there’s ice time and equipment for the age group 4-9, girls visit the hockey school while also teenage girls and women have discovered the games in recent years.

“Now we have over 25 female players. It’s just a beginning, a first step. A lot of girls who play in my school really love it,” Arslan said. “For a long time everyone in Mongolia thought it’s just a men’s sport but now everything is changing and we have to give the same opportunity to young girls and women. We definitely want to develop a women’s league.”
One of the first events at the new Steppe Arena was the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend last fall.
On the men’s side championships have been held since 1999. Last season league games have been moved to the arena while some games were still played outdoor.

“In men’s hockey we have a six-team league. Some games are played at the new arena in Ulaanbaatar but teams from other cities such as Baganuur host the games on classic outdoor rinks. But the finals were in the Steppe Arena. We did it at a high level with shows, a concert and for the first time we had a high attendance,” he said.

The 46-year-old was a hockey player for a long time himself, played at the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia until 2015 and has since then been the national coach at the competition and for the 2017 Asian Winter Games.

Arslan fell in love with the sport in Moscow when his father was working there. “I loved to play and to skate. In Mongolia there have been a lot of Russian workers after the ‘60s and that’s how hockey started,” Arslan said.
When I played hockey it was outdoor, sometimes at -40°C and the puck would sometimes break. It was a different style of hockey. Every game was a winter classic.
Mergen Arslan
“Hockey is getting more popular because we won gold at the Challenge Cup of Asia in 2018 and 2019,” said Arslan. “It’s big accomplishments because we didn’t have indoor rinks at that time, practised outdoor at -40°C and then go to an indoor rink with a more technical, skilled game was really difficult. The ice is so much different outdoor, it’s harder to stop, harder to turn. But we did it and won against these countries who play at indoor rinks.”

Mongolia also used to play in the World Championship program between 2007 and 2013, however, the men’s team had only one win in 26 games, the U18 team zero in 12. After a ten-year break due to not meeting the minimum participation standards, Mongolia is set to return next spring.
Mongolian players at the 2008 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division III Group A.
photo: IIHF Archive
“It was hard for us in past World Championships because we could only practise three, four months when it was cold and then have to go in spring and play against teams that can practise 12 months. Also the lack of equipment. There was not much support for hockey,” Arslan remembered the less heralded beginnings of Mongolia in IIHF events. “But we worked very hard for ten years to get to this level, to get this rink. After winning these Challenge Cup of Asia tournaments and also being successful in bandy the new and the prior Presidents promised us to build new rinks and help develop hockey because we did a miracle winning an Asian championship like that. I’m very happy. We have a new rink, kids, the hockey program starts growing, we have female players now.”

Convincing the government was long time an issue not only for the Mongolian ice hockey family but also many other smaller hockey programs are struggling getting facilities built.

“Mongolia is a country of wrestling. When we tried to develop hockey, people asked why we need hockey, we are doing great in judo, taekwondo, boxing,” Arslan said.
Hockey is a team sport. As a coach I want kids to become hockey players, learn how to work on a team with teammates. When they become team players, it will help them in the future for the community, for the businesses. I want more and more kids to love the game.
Mergen Arslan
After the end of his career as a player Arslan became one of the driving forces behind the scenes. Coaching the national team and having his hockey school, he also takes care of the international matters at the Mongolian Ice Hockey Federation.

He also thanked for the support of IIHF Vice-President Aivaz Omorkanov and former IIHF Council member Vladislav Tretiak, who went with him to the President of Mongolia to help initiate the project of the Steppe Arena in 2018. Three years later the arena is proudly standing in the steppes of Mongolia on the way from the Chinggis Khaan International Airport to downtown Ulaanbaatar.

“We talked about an indoor rink for 60 years and it was not happening and these persons and our President really helped us to get the project started,” Arslan said.

And that’s not all as two more rinks are planned. Another district rink in Ulaanbaatar and one in Darkhan 200 kilometres away from Ulaanbaatar. “The budgets have been approved, which is really good news. Now the architects are working on the project.”

The infrastructure boost and increasing numbers also give Mongolia the possibility to return to the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program.

After their results in the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia before the pandemic and the new opportunity to play hockey all year long it will be interesting to see how far Mongolia can get in the World Championship program in the next few years.
The Mongolian men’s national team celebrates after winning the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia.
photo: David Jong
“Because of Covid hockey stopped and everybody in Mongolia and around the world had to wait. For us it’s a new beginning. Everybody was hungry to get back to practise hockey and more kids got interested after staying at home for two years. For the federation and our hockey school it was difficult to catch up but it’s getting back to normal,” Arslan said.

Their comeback will start with the men’s national team and was originally planned at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division IV in Kuwait City. However, following Kuwait’s withdrawal as hosts, Mongolia might end up hosting the event itself at the Steppe Arena in Ulaanbaatar. The national team’s comeback will thus also be the first IIHF tournament in the country.

“To have the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division IV in Mongolia will hopefully have a positive effect for hockey and also positively affect the people at the government,” Arslan said.

The new hosting assignment will be formalized later this week at the 2022 IIHF Semi-Annual Congress. Beside Mongolia and Kuwait, also the Philippines and newcomer Indonesia are entered in the group.