A group of women from the Philippines made history this past week, becoming the country’s first national women’s ice hockey team to compete in a IIHF competition. From March 7 to 15, the Philippines competed in the 2017 IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia, a competition for Asian countries that do not compete in, or compete in the lowest level of, the IIHF World Championships.
The Philippines’ women’s team was formed in 2014, and until now, competed with a team of 10 to 12 girls in non-IIHF tournaments. However, since the Philippines joined the IIHF in May 2016, these women now have the chance to officially compete as a national team in international competitions.
“Now we have a 19 women team and I believed we’ve prepared well for this tournament,” said Captain Danielle Imperial. “We have a handful of really experienced players, a few old players we were able to get back on the ice, a lot of new ones who’ve trained hard since they started. We’ve trained all together for five months or so and I’m confident in saying we’ve made huge progress.”
While the Philippines opened up the tournament with a tough 21-1 loss to Thailand followed by two more losses to Singapore (6-2) and India (4-3), they quickly rebounded, claiming their first ever IIHF win, a 3-1 victory over Malaysia.
The Philippines suffered one more loss (8-0) against New Zealand’s U18 team (the eventual tournament winners) before claiming their second win of the tournament, a 3-2 victory against the United Arab Emirates. Forward Bianca Cuevas led the team throughout the tournament with five goals and nine points, followed by forward Kayla Herbolario, who had two goals and five points.
The team is currently coached by Steven Füglister, who grew up in Switzerland and played for EHC Bülach and EHC Winterthur in the Swiss Div 1 league. Füglister moved to the Philippines four years ago, and along with coaching the women’s team, also captains the men’s national team.
“We have a group of very dedicated and hard working hockey enthusiasts,” said Füglister. “As a team we’re overall well-balanced andour greatest strength is a good team effort. We have two to three players that have the potential to decide games by themselves skill wise.”
The girls on the team took various different paths to get to where they are today. Assistant captain Christel Mamaril started by playing inline hockey. “I was in college and I wanted to do something worthwhile aside from hanging out with my friends and studying. I saw that there was an inline hockey club in our university (DLSU Hockey Club), so I decided to join.”
Bianca Cuevas, also an assistant captain, started figure skating at six years old, something she picked up after trying it out at a mall’s skating rink. Her brother played hockey, and Cuevas developed interest in the sport from watching her brother play.
“I tried it and I instantly fell in love with it,” said Cuevas. “I continued figure skating at the same time I was playing hockey. Eventually, when I was 12 years old, I didn’t enjoy figure skating anymore so I decided to stop and only continue to play hockey.”
Imperial was introduced to hockey when her cousins, who had moved back to the Philippines after living in California, showed her and her brother the Mighty Ducks movies.
“That started it all,” explained Imperial. “Our garage became our little roller rink and when we got bigger, our driveway. Next thing we knew we were on the ice.” Imperial later tagged along with her brother when he was recruited by a coach who needed more players for a tournament.
Imperial eventually joined a team in a local men’s league with her brother. The team is coached by Carl Montano, who grew up in Vancouver. Imperial has bonded with her brother and made lifelong friends through playing on the team, all of which has just continued to grow her love for the game.
“From on-ice training, off-ice sessions, midnight snacks after training with the team, traveling for tournaments, etc … we kept falling in love with a game that we were already passionate about. On the ice sometimes I still think to myself how crazy it is to be where I am now.”
Ice hockey is not a popular sport in the Philippines, but what has continued to drive the growth of the sport in the country is the community of players and coaches.
“I love the hockey community,” said Mamaril. “Your teammates become your best friends. Up until now, my closest friends are the ones I met playing hockey.”
“It’s a small tight knit community. We are very supportive of each other. We all have on goal – to promote hockey in the Philippines.”
When Imperial started playing, coaches struggled to get enough players together to rent ice time. Eventually Hockey Philippines and the local league in Manila that Imperial plays for (and where other young players and several expats play) were formed. While they used to struggle to get 10 players out for practices, now coaches hold ice times for players of different skill levels and ages and have at least 20 players show up.
“Hockey out here in the Philippines has been taking a lot of big strides in the past three years and I think it has still yet to reach a stable, organized and developed state where the progress can continue smoothly,” said Imperial. “Right now we’re just starting out and getting organized with the Federation. There are a lot of obstacles, yes, but things are going great so far. Things are falling in place and right now, with the opportunities to compete, especially in IIHF tournaments, we see what all the work and progress has built up to. All these things just keep us going.”
If hockey, in particular women’s hockey, is going to continue to grow in the Philippines, there are several things that are going to need to happen. The first is public attention.
“With the Philippines being a tropical country, it is unusual to be playing winter sports,” explained Cuevas. “Whenever I tell people I play hockey, they react so surprised and always ask where, when, how and why. Although I’ve been playing for about eight years now, hockey in the Philippines is still quite unpopular.”
Both the men’s and women’s national teams are starting to get recognition online and on TV and radio, but more can still be done. Some of the other barriers are that there are a limited number of rinks (that can be hard to get to) and that if players want to buy gear they have to order it online from North America.
Imperial, Mamaril, and Cuevas all recognize that to continue to grow the game of hockey in their country, they will need to actively work to recruit more female players. This includes recruiting younger girls and finding financial support for those who cannot commit because of cost.
However, despite these barriers, the passion these women have for hockey is contagious. With their dedication to and love for the sport, competing in the 2017 IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia is just the tip of the iceberg.
Photos courtesy of Danielle Imperial.