by Myles A. Garcia l Positively Filipino
Indeed. Turns out that a professional hockey team (as the Tampa Bay Lightning was eventually known) wasn’t an insane an idea because thousands of Canadian snowbirds (expats who winter or have retired in Florida) need their ice hockey fix. You could take the Canucks out of the great Frozen North, but you couldn’t take ice hockey out of their veins. Hence, a ready-made audience for ice hockey in the Florida swamps.
Then in 1988, at the Olympic Winter Games of Calgary, there was the odd sight of a team from the Caribbean competing in four-man bobsleigh—a sport long dominated by the traditional winter nations (i.e., Caucasians). Yet here was a scrappy team of dark-complexioned bobsledders making their international debut on the biggest sports stage of all. But the comical, sometimes humiliating, consequences of the situation were immortalized in “Cool Runnings,” the breakout movie about that historic shattering of traditional norms.
Flash forward 31 years, the international winter sports calendar shifts into high gear in 2020 just as the gold dust— for many Filipino fans—is settling from the recently concluded 30th SEA (Southeast Asian) Games held in the Philippines last fall. Those SEA Games were not only the biggest multisport meet in history (a world record 56 sports contested by only 11 countries) but it also marked the presence of at least two traditional winter/western sports — figure skating and ice hockey — in a tropical and typhoon-prone neighborhood of Southeast Asia.
Since Manila pushed for a full slate for the ice sports at those SEA Games, it requires a sober assessment of the Philippines’ involvement in “winter” pastimes. Previously, the Philippines had participated in a few Winter Olympic Games, starting at the Sapporo Winter Games of 1972 when Juan Cipriano and Ben Nanasca became the first “Filipino” winter Olympic athletes in history. But like other athletes who have marched under the Philippine flag in subsequent Winter Games (read about them in my very first article for PositivelyFilipino: http://www.positivelyfilipino.com/magazine/10-best-kept-secrets-of-olympic-ceremonies), they were either Filipino Americans or Filipino Canadians, whose Filipino citizenship was still valid, qualifying them to participate at Olympic Games.
The Pinoy Men’s Ice Hockey team does get corporate support, but all players still hold down day jobs to stay afloat, and they also pay the Mall of Asia SM for ice rink time at a barely discounted rate. They were also hoping for more financial support from the POC (Philippine Olympic Committee).
However, here’s a thought: To compete and be taken seriously by fans and other teams and nations, shouldn’t the players’ size and bulk be given serious consideration in this heavy-contact, bruising sport?
Gautier explained candidly that Filipinos (and nations outside of the Euro-North American-Australian axes) will just have to content themselves with the fact that size is important. And yes, speed could partially compensate for lack of size, but ice hockey will always be dominated by the heftier, bigger-boned Americans, Canadians, Russians, Germans, Finns, and Czechs. It is what it is.
At the recent 30th SEA Games, the Pinoy men’s team won a bronze out of a five-country field. (In a preliminary game vs. Thailand, the RP men got creamed with a score of 10-1. In the finals, the Thai men, expectedly, won gold; Singapore silver; and Philippines bronze. Malaysia and Indonesia were the two losing nations.)
There is also a Pinay women’s national team. Members range from the most mature, Jennifer, with a Russian surname, Tikhanova, 49, and her 18-year-old daughter, Melanie, to the newest and youngest recruit, Fil-Am Rosalyn de Castro, now 16, from Rockaway Beach, Queens, New York. De Castro was the starting goalie for the 2019 season. Jennifer (the mom) is a back-up goalie. The rest, with age averaging 23.5 years, are metropolitan Manila-based Filipinas. The squad’s current coach is Carl Montano.
The women made their international debut at the 2017 IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup in Bangkok, Thailand. In 2018, at Division I of the IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the hosts took first place, followed by the UAE. The Filipinas came in third, India fourth and last.
Unfortunately, the 30th SEA Games could not stage a women’s tournament because it could not attract more than three teams. International rules require at least four competing nations or at least one losing nation. (As a consolation, here is an earlier 2019 match between the Pinay Islanders and their UAE counterparts. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=au9GsCJDCbg )
Not Just Beauty Pageants Now
So widespread is the rise in popularity of ice hockey that there is even a Latin American ice hockey league now. The sport has grown significantly there in its second year. There are 21 men’s, women’s and under-16 teams from the Falkland Islands/Malvinas (remember them?), Jamaica (again!), and the Philippines’ perennial rivals in beauty pageants, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. They are competing in four divisions, with more than 400 players of varying skill levels. Imagine, Latina beauties with a face mask and a puck.
Do That Quadruple Salchow Again, Please!
While our sole, home-grown, two-time Olympic figure skater Michael Christian Martinez has now hung up his ice skates, a few up-and-coming teenage Filipinas are poised to make their own names in the sport. One is Misha (or Mikayla) Fabian, 18, an Economics Management freshman at Ateneo who made history last year by being the first Filipino athlete to compete at the Winter Universiade of Krasnoyarsk 2019, Russia.
For some reason, either injury or a limited number of entries from the host country, Fabian and another newcomer, Sofia Guidotti, did not participate at the 30th SEA Games ladies’ ice events at the SM MegaMall. But there were two other senior Filipina ladies: Cirinia Gillett and Allison Krystle Petricheto (who also has Italian citizenship via her father). Nine Asian lady skaters competed.
In the ladies’ singles finals, Petrocheto won silver while Gillett came in last.
On the senior men’s side, the Philippines was represented by Fil-Canadian Edrian Paul Celestino, age 21, and Fil-American Christopher Caluzza, 29, who is also on the verge of retiring from the sport and won the SEA Games’ men’s silver. Celestino finished just outside the medalists, placing fourth out of seven contestants.
Without the support of the ShoeMart Corporation (in whose four malls in Pasay, Mandaluyong, Las Pinas, and Cebu are found the regulation-size ice rinks in the country), there would be no ice hockey or figure skaters from the Philippines. There are also the Xrinks, two smaller, non-regulation sized rinks found at Robinsons Place in Ermita and at the Uptown Mall at Bonifacio Global City (BGC). The Xrinks use the more eco-friendly ingredients of polyurethane and fiberglass.
(For the record, there is another US skater of Filipino descent, Jessica Calalang, 25, from Elk Grove, Illinois, who is in US Pairs. She partners with Brian Johnson and is ranked on the USA Figure Skating’s Team B. Calalang and Johnson will possibly be seen at the 2020 US Figure Skating National Championships from January 20-26, 2020.)
Blame It On The Jamaicans!
As previously mentioned, before the appearance of Usain Bolt, Jamaican athletes made a collective name for themselves when the Caribbean islanders crashed the winter bobsledding party of the traditional winter nations at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games—just a few years before apartheid also fell in South Africa.
A somewhat similar story is happening with four transplanted Filipinos. Right now, the first Pinoy four-man bobsled team in history is composed of true Philippine-based athletes, not Fil-Canadians or Fil-Ams. The quartet also serves on the Philippine Coast Guard and are ex-champion dragon boat rowers as well. They have a general manager/coach Buddy Cunanan, and at least one corporate sponsor, Philippine Airlines. In 2018, the team first trained in Innsbruck, Austria. However, they found that setting very alien and switched to Calgary where English is spoken; they have some fellow Pinoys around for camaraderie on, paradoxically, the very same track where the history-making Jamaicans made their debut in 1988.
The biggest obstacle to achieving even a little credibility in these sports alien to our indigenous, tropical environment is the cost. These are expensive sports requiring costly equipment, competent coaches (who don’t come cheap either) and ice time. One has to live, train, travel and compete in the northern hemisphere where the climate, proper facilities, proximity to good coaches, and various competitions exist to hone ice skills.
Even in the Olympics, the sliding sports (bobsleigh, luge, skeleton) are always among the most expensive to stage. In 1960, bobsleigh was not included in the Squaw Valley Games because the US organizers would not spend on building a new sliding track in the California Sierras. For the last three Winter Olympics—Sochi 2014, PyeongChang 2018 — and the upcoming Beijing 2022—the brand-new sliding tracks each cost at least US$155 million and legacy use is highly questionable. This isn’t even considering the cost of a used four-man sitter, which can run to $20,000.
The newly arrived Pinoy bobsledders in Calgary also might have moved there at a rather shaky time. Although one of the Canadian teams also trains there, the future funding of Calgary’s bobsled track is uncertain, one of the reasons Calgary’s bid for the Winter 2026 Olympics last year didn’t make it out of the starting gate.
Also, bear in mind that these very showy and on-the-surface, glamorous winter sports offer a very limited shelf life. A winter athlete’s peak years, if you can rise to the top of the game, are very short and unforgiving. Ice hockey players can probably go up to age 40 in a competitive, professional life. But by then, age, injuries, and the natural desire for warmth will triumph. For figure skaters, age 28 is considered the washed-up and “over the hill” marker.
In view of these rather daunting circumstances, the real question becomes: does participation in these alien sports just amount to being saling-pusa (pity-participation or consolation status) as Jamaica more or less was viewed in 1988? Figure skater Martinez finished in 34th and 35th place(s) at the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics respectively; only the top 24 moves on to the finals. Same thing for Fabian in Krasnoyarsk. Similarly, I doubt that the Pinoy ice hockey teams of either gender can really get past their regional SEA placements.
If one is to be brutally honest, I’d say that those aren’t real competitions. Is putting in just a token presence after all the expense and struggle, good enough? Sure, you get to march in the Opening Ceremony and show off the flag, but you compete with borrowed equipment and with the realistic knowledge that you will only be in the preliminaries and not even move on to the semi’s, let alone the finals.
Perhaps Filipinos need to recalibrate their hopes and concentrate on other “winter” sports.
I’d recommend Curling. It is akin to bowling or shuffleboard. It’s quite viable because: it’s conducted entirely indoors and can be played on those synthetic ice rinks at Robinson Place and Uptown Mall; it’s not very expensive, except for the stones and ice time, although coaching and travel costs would be the same as the others; and you don’t really have to be especially big, tall, or hefty. It’s not a heavy contact sport, and skills from bowling can easily be applied. However, it’s a very arcane and acquired-taste sport. But Filipinos might also be able to get a word in, fashion-wise.
Once again, there already is an outlier curling team before the Philippines can jump in. The African nation of Nigeria has a mixed-couples (one male and one female) team, using a Canadian coach. Following is their story in a nutshell: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2S2_DQsCiFc/ Similarly, Nigeria also entered a two-woman bobsled team at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics, making it the first African nation to send female athletes to an Olympic sliding competition.)
Then, there’s Snow Volleyball which is being considered as a demonstration sport for Beijing 2022 and for possible full inclusion after that. It’s the winter equivalent of Beach Volleyball except it’s played in a snow-covered court with three players instead of two, and they are covered up, not for modesty’s sakes but due to the cold. (That makes it a perfect sport for the women Muslim players.) If Snow Volleyball takes hold, this could possibly be the cheapest “winter” sport to purse – no special steel equipment, just snow, and an outdoor court although height would still be a premium to get anywhere in this new sport.
And finally, if “Breakdancing” gets included as a demonstration for Paris 2024, how about Ice Sculpting for Winter 2026? The woodcarvers from Paete would have a head start over other nationalities on that. If the IOC member to the Philippines, Mikaela Cojuangco-Jaworski, pushed hard enough, perhaps she might get Ice Sculpting included as a demo sport for 2026 or 2030? Until then, however, our prospective ice-carving “athletes” would be well advised to hold on to their steady day jobs aboard those luxurious cruise ships.
If the goal is just to show the flag and get to tell the grandkids someday that grandma/pa had crashed that exclusive club of elite winter-sports in their youth, then, by all means, go for it. If one can get the IOC to subsidize some of the training costs (as they do for developing sports in new countries), even better. In the meantime, keep in mind the Olympic mantra of the modern Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin: The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part, just as the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.
Myles A. Garcia is a Correspondent and regular contributor to www.positivelyfilipino.com. He has written three books: Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies (latest edition, 2016); Thirty Years Later . . . Catching Up with the Marcos-Era Crimes (© 2016); and his latest, Of Adobe, Apple Pie, and Schnitzel With Noodles—all available in paperback from amazon.com (Australia, USA, Canada, UK, and Europe).
Myles is also a member of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH), contributing to their Journal, and pursuing dramatic writing lately.
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