Photos by Naz Brown
BANGKOK = ice hockey. Next we will be dog sledding and building igloos on Sukhumvit, right?
Well, for a number of hardy expats the above equation is a reality. Every Thursday night, the Flying Farangs discard their laptops, tablets and iPhones and leave the worries of the business world behind as they grab their sticks and skates, head to The Rink at Central Grand Rama IX, lace up their blades, and compete with some of Thailand’s best players.
Canadian Craig O’Brien founded the Farangs. A mechanical engineer by trade, he has since returned to Canada, but when he first hit Don Muang’s tarmac he set off in search of an ice rink instead of heading to the usual tourist haunts of Pattaya or Patpong. He lived for the game, and his zeal rubbed off on his teammates, many of whom had never taken the game so seriously in their lives.
From petroleum engineers to investment consultants, teachers, journalists, deep-sea divers, stamp collectors, and hotel executives, the professions of the players run the gamut. But for a few hours every week, they can pretend to be Sydney Crosby all over again, and have fun doing it.
The players themselves are a diverse mix coming from places as far afield as Helsinki, Los Angeles, London, and Tokyo. But the bulk of the foreigners come from – yeah, you guessed it – Canada. You remember the old adage, “You can take a Canadian male out of a hockey rink, but you can never take the hockey rink out of a Canadian male.” Well, it’s so true.
Jogsports (a company founded by Flying Farang Scott Whitcomb) and the Farangs host an international all-in hockey tournament in late October and an Oldtimers tourney (over 35) at the end of March. Teams have come from as far away as Russia, Finland, Canada, and the Czech Republic but the regulars are Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo. Thailand is represented by the Flying Farangs and Thai teams such as Canstar, and the Warriors.
Pandoo Nation, a team made up of primarily ex-NCAA players, won the last Land of Smiles tourney (the 19th) defeating the Siberian Bears 6-2. To get there, they defeated the Kreuz Subsea Sharks, a team made up of primarily Junior A players from Canada, in the semi-final. Those two teams fought it out for the Hong Kong championship earlier in the year, with Kreuz prevailing though they were bolstered by ex-NHLers Wayne Primeau and Todd Warriner. In Bangkok, Subsea did have ex-NHLer Tyler Sloan, but he wasn’t enough to cope with Pandoo’s speed.
Ex-NHLer Francistek Kucera, who played for the Chicago Black Hawks in the 1992 Stanley Cup final, played for the Old Boys Pilsen Indians in the Rec divison, while another ex-NHLer, recently retired defenseman Jaroslav Spacek, showed up for the closing party. Spacek was captain of the Buffalo Sabres for a while, while Kucera won gold with the Czech team at the Nagano Olympics in 1998 and was involved in the Jaromir Jagr to Washington deal.
In 2012, current Chicago Black Hawk Johnny Oduya came to train and play with the Farangs during another NHL shutdown. Oduya not only led the Farangs to win their first home tournament championship, but five months later also set up the Stanley Cup winning goal for the Black Hawks in their six-game series victory over the Boston Bruins.
Although the game with its myriad of rules and infractions can be difficult to understand, there is a growing base of support for the sport here in Bangkok. Unfortunately, as hockey equipment is very expensive, only the children of rich or middle-class Thai families can afford to play. But it is hoped that with the growing popularity of the sport, more and more Thai kids will become interested in the game, and more ways will be found to subsidize equipment purchases.
The Farangs shifted base again and ended up at the much smaller Imperial Lat Phrao (now the Big C Lat Phrao). This was about half the size of a normal facility. During that period, the Farangs staged their international tournaments at the full size Kad Suan Kaew complex in Chiang Mai (now also closed). Then in March of 2004, the Farangs were finally given permission to skate at the CentralWorld Plaza, a rink they have coveted for a decade. Unfortunately, the old rink manager had an aversion to ice hockey so they never got in the door, but when the Central Group recently took over management of the shopping centre, they agreed to give the Farangs a chance.
Unfortunately, this also only lasted for a short time (nine months) as in January 2005 the CentralWorld Plaza closed its rink as well, opting to make better use of the space surrounding the arena. Luckily, the Farangs were able to bounce back to their old home in the Imperial Samrong arena, where they stayed until January of 2012 when they moved to their new home, “The Rink,” on the seventh floor of Central Grand Rama 9.
The Farangs used to compete in the Bangkok Hockey League, which was a league that ran for two years (1999-2000) and featured teams like the Polar Bears, a squad filled with ferocious Thai females. But the league came to a halt when Samrong was initially shut down.
The league was revived in the fall of 2004 as the Thai World Hockey League (TWHL) by Flying Farangs Scott Whitcomb and Scott Murray. With teams like the Klong Toey Whalers facing off against the Ding Daeng Jets and Sukhumvit Stars, it was a huge success and is now in its tenth season (www.jogsports.com).
The major difference between the old league and the new one is the teams are mixed. Before, the Farangs would face off against Thai teams and inevitably all hell would break out. “Sometimes it was like a war zone, they’d cheap shot us, and we’d retaliate – a lot of blood and stitches,” says Flying Farang captain, Scott Murray. “But now with Whitcomb mixing the teams, the Thais and Farangs are getting to know one another. You’re a lot less likely to run someone, or throw a punch, if you know the person.”
And the quality of the Thai players has gone up considerably with the MVP of the first league being Tawin “Thor” Chartsuwan, and many of the top players in the league now being Thai.
The Farangs garnered a lot of publicity earlier in January of 2005 when they staged a tsunami relief game and raised over US$50,000 for the Thai Red Cross. Spearheaded by veterans Greg Jones and Robert Kennedy, the game pitted the World All-Stars against Team Canada, and the World stormed back in the final minutes to win the hard-fought contest 7-6.
With the National Hockey League embroiled in a bitter labour dispute, the game made the headlines of most sports pages back in North America and made prime time on the three major Canadian TV channels. The gist of the reporting being while the professional players were too greedy to play at all, the Flying Farangs were paying to play and raising money for tsunami victims as well.
One of the highest profile players to lace up against the Farangs was Neal Broten, who brought a team over from the USA a couple of years ago to compete in the Chiang Mai tourney. After being part of the famous gold-medal “Miracle on Ice” squad in Lake Placid back in 1980, Broten suited up for one short of 1,100 games in the NHL, playing 17 NHL seasons. He popped in 289 goals and had 634 assists for 923 points. He won a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils, captained the Minnesota North Stars and his is the only sweater the Dallas Stars have ever retired.
There was one occasion where 6’6” Farang Bjorn Turmann hi-fived her as she took the turn on the corner boards. This immediately caught on and lovely Khun Tu drove the length of the boards hi-fiving Farangs, spectators and opposition players – quite a moment in sporting history.
So it seems that the holler “he shoots, he scores” will not be restricted to the rinks of Europe and North America anymore, and the Farangs will continue to play a major part in spreading the gospel of ice hockey in Southeast Asia.
With new rinks opening in Hanoi, Udon Thani and Phnom Penh, the sports of ice skating and ice hockey are growing; long-term die-hard fans in Bangkok hope to one day have a Southeast Asian Hockey League, feeding professionals to the National Hockey League.
For further information on the Flying Farangs, contact Scott Murray firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.flyingfarangs.com. Ball hockey (played with ice hockey sticks on a tennis court) is practiced by the Thai Stix at the British Club, every weekend (contact John Stevens at email@example.com).