At the 2018 IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia (CCOA) Division I tournament in Malaysia, there was one player who lit up the scoreboard at a rate of 2.67 goals per game. Bianca Cuevas scored eight goals (and notched one assist) in three games for the Philippines’ national women’s hockey team. Her eight goals were more than any other female player in both of 2018’s CCOA and CCOA Division I tournaments.
The Philippines’ national women’s team made its IIHF debut at the 2017 CCOA, where Cuevas also demonstrated her scoring prowess, leading her team in points with five goals and four assists through six games.
The journey that Cuevas took to representing her country on the international stage and becoming a leading goal scorer took her from the Philippines to Canada.
Cuevas first started her career on ice as a figure skater. As a young child, her and her older brother were enticed by a skating rink that they saw in a mall in Manila, leading her mother to sign her brother up for hockey and Cuevas up for figure skating.
“Later on, watching my brother, it made me curious and interested in what he was doing, so I wanted to try hockey,” said Cuevas.
Cuevas’ first few years of hockey were spent honing her skills in the co-ed Manila Ice Hockey League (MIHL) and with a youth team that competed in the annual Mega Ice Hockey 5’s tournament in Hong Kong. However, it was in Canada where Cuevas would become the player that she is now.
In 2016, a new rink was opened in the Philippines’ Cebu City, and an NGO called Pandoo Foundation held a hockey camp to celebrate its opening. The three day camp was run by NCAA Division I Niagara University alumni Sarah Zacharias, Sam Goodwin and Robert Martini.
“[Zacharias] approached me [at the end of the camp] and she invited me to train with her team in Winnipeg,” said Cuevas. Zacharias helps coach the Balmoral Hall Blazers of the Junior Women’s Hockey League (JWHL).
After deferring her university admission in the Philippines, Cuevas made the move to Winnipeg to repeat grade 12 in order to play with Balmoral Hall and experience the sport she loves in what Cuevas affectionately calls “the land of hockey.”
“When I first trained with [the Balmoral Hall Blazers]—wow. I still remember my very first training,” said Cuevas of her introduction to hockey in Canada. “After that my body hurt so much … When I first got on the ice, I was also really nervous, and I was messing up all the drills because I was so shocked by how fast and strong they were. I’d never experienced that before.”
The Balmoral Hall roster was full by the time Cuevas arrived in Winnipeg, but Zacharias found her a team that she could play games with in the Manitoba Women’s Junior Hockey League (MWJHL), the Western Predators.
“I remember the head coach told me that when he first saw me, he was pretty iffy about me, he didn’t think that I would be able to handle it and my skill level was just not there,” Cuevas said of an end of season interview she had with her team’s coaching staff. “But I dealt with it by working hard and persevering … and he said that I greatly improved.”
Cuevas noticed this improvement when playing in the 2017 CCOA. She felt faster and stronger, and was able to score a significant number of goals. Her teammates and coaches from the national team told her that they also noticed a difference in the way she played.
After the 2017 CCOA, Cuevas returned to Canada, where she was accepted into the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Cuevas wanted to be able to keep playing hockey, and so tried out for the Richmond Rebels of the South Coast Women’s Hockey League (SCWHL), a Senior AA league with teams in BC’s Lower Mainland as well as on Vancouver Island and in Kamloops and Prince George.
While Cuevas didn’t make the cut for the Richmond team, she was referred to the North Shore Rebels, who made their SCWHL debut in the 2017-18 season. The Rebels missed out of the playoffs in their first season, but are looking stronger after their first five games of the 2018-19 season, and already just one win away from matching their total number of wins from last season.
Besides playing in the SCWHL, Cuevas hopes to be able to continue to play for the Philippines’ national women’s team, which will compete in the 2019 Women’s CCOA Division I tournament in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates in April.
While in the past, any Filipino woman who played hockey could make the national team, Cuevas is anticipating that the coaching staff will need to make cuts for the 2019 CCOA. The Philippines currently has 33 registered female hockey players, a significant increase from when Cuevas first started playing in 2009. When she first started, representing her country on the international stage was far from her mind.
“If you asked my 10 year old self or 12 year old self, I probably would say that that would never happen, because we didn’t even have enough girls for a line.
“When I started playing there were only two, three girls, so I would never have imagined being able to represent my country playing hockey … It’s actually quite cool and quite amazing how far we’ve gone and how much we’ve grown.”
Photos courtesy of Bianca Cuevas
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Stay tuned for more articles from Liz Montroy as she highlights other teams attending the Challenge Cup of Asia in April!