To Compete or To Party: Playing Hockey Against NHLer Johnny Oduya in the Land of Smiles Ice Hockey Classic 2012 (Bangkok, Thailand)

I play hockey in Asia. The response I get ranges from surprise to confusion, and the first question I usually hear is, “Isn’t hockey a sport for girls?”

Ice hockey, man, not field hockey!

Really, it shouldn’t come as a surprise with the amount of expats spread across the continent.  North Americans and Europeans imported hockey with them as a means to feel at home when everything around them reminds them of how foreign they are. And with numerous luxury malls housing a proper skating rink, ice time is readily available.

But I admit, I wasn’t expecting hockey when I arrived in Beijing last winter, but then played in a six team league. Then I found out that there are recreational leagues in places like Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. There are tournaments in North Korea, and the one no one can mention without a devilish grin: Bangkok, Thailand.

I had the great fortune and impeccable timing to be travelling through Thailand when the Bangkok Battle – the Land of Smiles Hockey Classic – was being held. The great fortune was that my Beijing friends needed one more guy and that they can arrange all the gear for me. Good thing I left my stick there!

This tournament has been taking place for years now, and this is the second year that my team, the Beijing Ducks, with this group of core guys have come together for it. Last year, they apparently came in focused on one thing alone: Bangkok, city of sin.

For those of you who don’t know, Bangkok has a wild side to it. Alleys bright like fireworks with neon signs for such places named Spanky’s and Playschool. I’m from Montreal, and I’ve been to such clubs, and all I can say about Bangkok is that there’s a lot less dancing, but a lot more of everything else… use your imagination, and yes, they probably got that.

So our team got clobbered each game last year, and if it wasn’t for their wild partying antics, their good ol’ hockey boy charm, and their amicable personalities, they probably would have left the tournament with a reputation as a joke, and not jokers.

No, that could not be repeated. In March, we began doing on ice sprints after our weekly games against former Chinese national team hockey players in preparation for the October tournament in Thailand. At that time when I was huffing air into my heavy lungs, eyes on my skates as I couldn’t bear to see how much further I had to the end-boards – I was doing it all for the exercise as I didn’t think I’d be around for Bangkok.

For everyone else, the lesson was learned: the competition is fierce, every guy can play, and there’s no taking any team lightly. In the competitive International Open, there are no weak links that can be exploited.

Forget coast to coasting it, waiting for the perfect shot, and fancy passing plays. We had to be prepared and humble if we had a shot to perform with any respectability.

And this year would be no exception. It was the tournament’s largest turn out with 39 teams spread across 4 divisions: International Open (8, competitive), International Recreational (21, more for fun), Women’s League (4), and Asian Open (3, all Asian players).

Teams came from all over Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Russia, and of course Canada. It made for some exotic team names like Abu Dhabi Storms, Dubai Mighty Camels, Singapore Rusty Blades, Taipei Typhoon, and the host team Bangkok Flying Farangs.(Farang is a Thai word used to call-out Western Foreigners, not necessarily insultingly. It also means guava.)

Some of these teams take it very serious, and probably aren’t even friends back home: I heard that there are tryouts. Some teams like the defending champs Abu Dhabi may even have professionally paid players back in the dessert. Other teams, like the one from Siberia, decided to stay in Pattaya, a popular Russian all inclusive resort town about 110 km away from Bangkok that is apparently those bright neon alleys times a hundred. With our hotel four kilometers away from the rink it still took an hour to drive there in Bangkok’s infamous traffic; needless to say, that they didn’t make it in time for their first game.

There was an added element, almost like a surprise, to the competition in the International Open. About a month before the tournament began we got word that the host team was going to be joined by a professional hockey player, current NHLer (and Swedish Olympian) Johnny Oduya. (For more about his reasons for coming, and the tournament, read Justin Bourne’s article.)

As a forward all I thought was that the pro had to be a defenceman. Is it wise to shadow a defenceman in their own zone?

Also making an appearance in the International Recreational for a Finnish team was former Toronto Maple Leafs goalie, Vesa Toskala. He wasn’t playing goalie, and apparently after a few games went M.I.A. in the streets of Bangkok.

Bangkok tied their first game, we lost ours, and so our second game match up was important since the last place team in the division doesn’t move on to the playoffs. Huddled together in the crease moments before puck drop, we got all pumped and loose, and reminded ourselves to enjoy it because how often do you get to play against a current NHLer (current… well, you know what I mean).

Thanks to the NHL lockout with owners and players fighting over billions of dollars instead of playing, I got to skate against an NHLer in his prime in a competitive game. For once rich people do me favor, albeit unintentionally. And to think that, as a fan, I’ve been effected by the NHL lockout in a direct and wonderful way.

And then there he was, Oduya, stick down, head up, all focused for the opening faceoff. It was incredible to watch his slickness, his impressively smooth skating from the bench, and he probably would have been much more intimidating on the ice if it was a contact game.

Anyone who has seen pro hockey live is impressed with their skill, ability and speed, but skating against a pro in an actual game brings that appreciation to a whole new level.

Game starts and we were ready. We jumped out to a quick lead, as Bully (we had nicknames stitched on our jerseys above our numbers) was left all alone in the slot. It was all smiles and good humor on our bench from there on out. We were having fun.

Someone would try to pass Oduya on the outside, and return to the bench laughing. Another would try to cover him on the point, and you would see them flinch and the terror in their eyes squeezed tight when Oduya faked the shot and walked the line before passing it off to his partner.

We marveled in his decision making. We joked that we too could move with such awesome gear, those gorgeous skates. But this was all from the bench. The game was too fast to think. On the ice there was no time to be allured by the status of one player, though you defended against him with the respect his skill warranted as he was clearly a game changer. Though Oduya was undoubtedly the best player in the tournament, the rest of the team, from a rec league stand point, was pretty good too.

The game was back and forth. Our goalie, Chef, was making huge saves as we were being heavily outshot. The crowd cheered when he made a save look easy against Oduya. He may or may not have missed that shot.

We headed in the second with the lead still at 1-0. My line got off to a good start, our feet constantly moving, keeping the puck in deep. My stud winger Cruzer cycles in from the corner, spots me (Poutine) in close screening their goalie and fires a perfect slap pass right on my stick. I redirected it five-hole for the 2-0 lead.

Now our team really felt that the W was in reach, the win was ours for the taking. We had to continue skating, and keep it simple and enjoy every shift. Anyone can tell you winning is fun, but for a team that comes to this tournament to play in the games as much as to play in the city, this type of winning was exhilarating.

The third period rolls around and Chef is stubborn in letting anything by him. We’re generous in allowing his save totals to climb. It’s still 2-0. We’re keeping Oduya and the host team shutout. But we refuse to be outplayed, only outshot. And then we break in. Cruzer drops me a pass. I one-time it. Easy save but a juicy rebound. Everyone crashes the net when Big Wheels pots it home. He celebrates by striking his arms outwards across his waist in a ‘that’s it, that’s all’ gesture. We take a commanding 3-0 lead.

Can we hold on and shut them out? Nope. They push back with intense pressure and get a hard earned goal. There’s less than two minutes left. We get a penalty. They pull their goalie. It’s a 6 on 4 and they have an NHL powerplay quarterback on their team. Doesn’t seem fair. But I guess nobody told our goalie. He continues with big saves, no rebounds. He’s been frustrating them all game.

During the game we remarked on how Oduya was playing classy, obviously not giving it his all, and thankfully not breaking ankles by taking slapshots towards the crowded net. But Chef or something else finally gets under his skin. Oduya is vexed. He unleashes by smacking his stick on the cross bar behind our net. He destroys Chef’s water bottle, breaking his own stick in the process. It may or may not have been on purpose.

We have prodded the sleeping giant with an end butt to the ribs. The 6 on 4 man advantage continues. The Farangs have us chasing. From the bench you could sense it coming. All alone at the point Oduya gets fed a pass. He has all the time in the world, like two seconds. It’s a perfect angle from out bench over his shoulder to the net. With his head up, he tees a bullet top corner. 3-2. (I would later see him repeat that same shot in his next games.)

But there’s just not enough time for the comeback. We hang on for a huge win. We celebrate by keeping the celebration under control. Nothing too crazy tonight, only a couple of beers… okay and one bottle of Jack.

We’re motivated now. We’re taking ourselves seriously. We actually have a shot in this tournament. The way the standings line up we know that our destiny is in our own hands. We win our next game and we finish first in our division, get a bye to the semis, and have all afternoon to have a pool party back at the hotel. We lose and we finish fourth in the division and get to play for second last.

Despite the potential debauchery of a party hanging as a carrot for us to come out and win our third game against Hong Kong, we come out flat. We lose to them, and then the consolation game against the Czech team. Bangkok and Oduya, however, turn their bad fortune and slow start around and win the tournament against the defending champs Abu Dhabi.

But it’s okay, one less day of playing for us meant one more night of partying. And we did get to lace them up against an NHLer and we got the best of that. He wasn’t on for any of the goals against, but still.  I don’t think there was ever a happier last place team. At the banquet, if you didn’t know better, you may have thought we won something. I guess we did.

The last I saw of Oduya was him in line for some sushi and salad. Our team left shortly after and I have no idea how the Bangkok Flying Farangs celebrated their championship. And I could only imagine the Hangover 2 like misadventures we would have gotten into with a trophy.

It did get us wondering though, that if the lockout continues into next year, maybe Oduya will tell his tales of amazing Thailand to his Chicago Blackhawks teammate Patrick Kane. Then we’ll really have a party.

But he’ll have to remember that a hockey tournament in Bangkok is not an event you bring your mom to.

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