While Mongolia is one of the few IIHF members with no indoor ice rinks, the landlocked country has a rich hockey history.
Young and old alike have taken to freezing cold temperatures to play hockey in Mongolia since neighbouring Soviets introduced the sport to the country in the 1960s.
The country’s men’s team has seen significant progress over the last six years. Their bandy (a game similar to hockey) men’s team won bronze at the 2017 Bandy World Championship, and recent visits and support from the Canadian Embassy in Mongolia and Canadian coaches Nate and Boe Leslie of Leslie Global Sports has helped developmentally.
However, up until now, Mongolia has never had a women’s team.
“Hockey is not just only for men,” said coach Mergen Arslan. “I want to make sure [women] have a right to play the sport they want.”
While the IIHF website lists the country as having just four registered female hockey players, Mongolia does in fact have enough to field a team for the 2019 IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia (CCOA), where it will make its international women’s debut. While five years ago there were only four or five female players, Arslan says that now they have just under 30.
“But we have more female[s] skating … A lot of players do skating in the rink,” said Arslan. “In the different provinces and villages, there’s girls skating, female players skating, and we’ve provided them with hockey equipment and some of them have already started playing, so that’s really good news.”
The team is fairly young, with players ranging in ages from 13 to 29 and hailing from around the country. Arslan recently brought the team together in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar for a training camp, where several players from the national men’s team helped him coach.
While the outdoor rinks have some advantages in that they help make the sport more accessible—kids are allowed to skate and play for free for as long as they want, and whenever new outdoor rinks have been opened, they've drawn many newcomers—the need for cold weather means that the national teams only gets three to four months to practice.
“But they are all very excited and they all are working very hard to go to this tournament, very very hard,” said Arslan of the women’s team’s preparation for the CCOA. For many of the players, this will be their first time travelling outside of Mongolia and their first time playing at an indoor rink.
“The main purpose [of sending a team to the CCOA] is to start having this women’s, female hockey going,” said Arslan, who knows that the competition may be tough. “We don’t care what medal, what position we get, it’s just important to make the first step.”
The team is focusing on basic skating, shooting and passing skills, and Arslan plans to implement simple, yet effective, game strategies.
“They’ve been working really hard and I can see that they love this sport,” he said. “They really like the sport.”
Along with using the 2019 CCOA to get the women’s program off the ground, Arslan is hoping that this team will help build some momentum towards getting the country an indoor rink.
“When the girls are playing, a lot of parents get involved … When parents get involved, we have a chance to develop hockey and finally maybe have an indoor rink.”
In September of 2018, around the same time the women’s team was announced, it was announced that there are plans for the country to get its first indoor rink, something which Arslan has been appealing for for several years.
Hockey is currently competing with more popular (and government-funded) sports in Mongolia like judo, wrestling and basketball. However, Arslan believes that hockey will gain more momentum and attention as the numbers of both male and female players continue to increase.
“[Compared to other sports] hockey in Mongolia is not very popular,” said Arslan, who uses a metaphor of a lighted candle to explain the situation.
“The lights on the candle are trying to go out. I’m trying to protect this light, to make sure that no one wants to turn it out … It’s been very hard to keep this candle light on in Mongolia. We will see what’s going to happen.”
More information on the 2019 Women’s CCOA, which is taking place from April 14 to 19 in Abu Dhabi, UAE, can be found at https://www.iihf.com/en/static/5456/asia