Nothing worth it comes easy
And sometimes, the rougher the road, the sweeter the reward is. This is the story of the inaugural Southeast Asian Games men’s ice hockey champions Team Pilipinas.
Last year, the Malaysian SEA Games Organizing Committee announced that they would include ice sports figure skating, short track speed skating, and ice hockey in the program of this year’s Games.
Of course, the excitement was huge for the nation’s young ice hockey squad.
“I just joined the team recently, about a year and a half ago. I went to the Philippines two years ago. I was born here, but I grew up in Canada,” shared Filipino-Canadian Paul Gabriel Sanchez. “Just the fact that people here are playing hockey is a surprise itself.
“The fact that we’re going to Japan for the Asian Winter Games and for the SEA Games, was just unbelievable. Even when we got there, seeing the scale of the SEA Games was just amazing.”
With day jobs and mall hours of SM Megamall and Mall of Asia getting in the way of their preparation, the squad had to make do with what they were given. The forward shared, “We just built on what the team had. Everyone is passionate about hockey. And if you are passionate about a sport, it brings you a long way.”
“What we really worked on those two years, in that short little time was becoming a team.”
Thus, they really bonded on and off the ice. Such unity is important because, “Hockey is a very tough sport. So if you are not ready to sacrifice your body for your teammates, you won’t have a successful tournament.”
The Fil-Canadian almost missed the chance to help the squad, as organizers had initially ruled him ineligible. When the scorer learned about it, he was frustrated. “Even when I was on to Kuala Lumpur on the airport, I didn’t know if I was gonna play. In our first practice, I still didn’t know. We had a motion for an appeal. It was until the end of the practice when I found out that I can play.
“Honestly, it was not a relief. I was actually angry,” Sanchez admitted. “I just wanted to play. So, if anything, I had more motivation to work hard.”
That motivation was evident, as Sanchez and the squad cruised past Indonesia and Singapore in their first two matches. The same determination pulled them past Malaysia.
The Nationals once again had to deal with a huge problem just to fend off the hosts. Just minutes into the first period of the said match, captain John Steven Fuglister was meted a game misconduct penalty which disqualified him from the game.
The skipper recalled, “It was an unfortunate accident. I was going for the puck, and the guy made a last-minute turn and I hit him. I unfortunately hit his head, though it was not intentional.”
After the call, the team was in disarray. But at that stage, they simply needed to keep fighting.
“There was a lot of emotions. Our captain was kicked out of the game. We have to deal with that. Wee have to deal with the crowd,” Sanchez reflected. “And actually I have never played in a crowd that raucous the whole time. I enjoyed it; some might be nerved by it. In the end, I am happy that we got the win.”
It was a nervy end of the match against the Malaysians, as after the Filipinos led 4-1, the hosts grabbed the lead at 6-5. Sanchez then took charge and scored the next two goals to get the Nationals back on top.
He narrated, “I was mad at myself because I had the puck before they had their sixth goal. Luckily I scored the next goals and I scored again in the shoot out.
“I hate losing,” he emphasized. “I can’t stand losing. So, I work as hard as possible. Just focus and know what I do in training will help in our wins.
“Every time you hesitate in hockey, which is a fast sport, you commit a mistake. So, if you focus on your instincts it helps a lot.”
The technical committee had also decided to suspend Fuglister in the final match against Thailand. The captain tried to appeal his case, but to no avail.
He shared, “The PSC and the chef de mission made an appeal to the Malaysian Arbitrary Court. I had to go in front of four judges, but it didn’t work out. They stuck with their decision.”
Nonetheless, the competitive fire in the Philippine men’s ice hockey team members fueled them enough to stun the favored Thais and, consequently, snare that first-ever major gold for the upstart side.
No one is as proud as the Filipino-Swiss captain, who had to watch from beside the bench. Fuglister said, “We played our game. We played a fast, hard skating game that was enough to beat Thailand.
“Lots of heart and lots of fight in the sixty minutes.”
Getting that historic mint bodes well for a team, who were once unheard of by almost every Filipino. Not only are they slowly getting exposure and creeping into the country’s consciousness, the team is building on the win to enter more competitions.
Fuglister, Sanchez, and the rest of the squad are ready to soar in next year’s Challenge Cup of Asia, their first-ever in Philippine soil. And they vow to do an encore of what they did in Malaysia.