As the buzzer sounded late afternoon on December 8, fans in attendance showered the SM Mall of Asia Skating Rink with loud cheers and congratulations as the Philippine national men’s hockey team capped the 2019 SEA Games tourney bronze medal with a 17-1 rout of Malaysia.
While the finish was definitely the highlight, what transpired was also a story of the trademark Filipino puso, which, in Filipino sports lingo, pertains to the motivation that drives athletes to overcome adversity.
Placing third was, of course, not the ideal scenario for the defending champions. They almost swept the elimination rounds with two lopsided victories against Malaysia and Singapore, only to get a taste of their own medicine from eventual champion Thailand, 10-1.
This setback was followed by another, as Singapore avenged themselves with a 4-3 win and prevented back-to-back golds for the Philippines.
Captain Steven Fuglister, the second-leading scorer in the tournament, felt the brunt of these consecutive blows. But the team, he said, had puso on their side.
“We wanted to show a good game for our fans and families. We felt we owed it to them; that was the message in the locker room and the team was able to rally with that,” said Fuglister, who scored four goals against Malaysia.
However, getting a chance at a podium finish was not just the product of fan support. It was also borne out of a solid organization run by passionate Filipino hockey pioneers.
Francois Gautier was one of the first to play ice hockey in the Philippines, starting when he was a kid in 1991. Now executive vice president of Hockey Philippines, Gautier makes sure they are in winning form as a leader both on the team and the organization.
“Definitely, it didn’t happen overnight. Every year, I talk to a lot of countries on what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. “But I can’t say it’s trial and error because what we end up implementing has been proven to work in other countries.”
The country had been competing without an organization to lead them for years. This went on until 2015, when the hockey community pooled enough support to create the Federation of Ice Hockey League (FIHL). After navigating a rigorous process, including getting membership from the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), FIHL was able to send the first Filipino ice hockey team to the 2017 SEA Games, winning gold on their first try.
The federation got plenty of support off the bat. The Philippine Sports Commission recognized and helped them navigate processes like registration. The IIHF even provided them gear to use for their training.
Gautier also frequented IIHF Congresses in various Western countries to learn about what works and what does not for a hockey organization. This year, he said, the Philippines is set to attain an association membership — granting it voting rights for the election of IIHF officers and other important decisions governing the world of hockey.
“It helps that we are led by people who aren’t very political,” Gautier said of FIHL president Christopher Sy. “I myself am not comfortable with politics. I signed up for this to see my sport grow in this country. We’re not gonna throw away what we worked so hard to build over internal political matters.”
Building chemistry between different personalities and playstyles also did not happen overnight. Most of the athletes currently on the national team have known each other since they were kids. Gautier himself had been playing with forward Sam Bengzon since the ’90s, and both had met defenseman LR Lancero when he first stepped onto the ice at age three.
Most of the men on the team also played in the Philippine Hockey League, established in 2019 not just to develop Filipino hockey talent but also as a requirement to compete for world championships.
“It’s great that we’re friends outside hockey,” Gautier said. “It’s easier to build chemistry on the ice when you already have chemistry off the ice. It’s easier to work the system and work team plays.”
Some of the more recent additions hailed from countries where hockey was more famous. Fuglister came from Europe, while 34-year-old Carlo Tenedero once played for Canada, where modern ice hockey was born. Apart from providing additional firepower for the national team, their imports carry invaluable knowledge of the sport that can be imparted to homegrown players.
Building for the future
But the pioneers can’t carry the team forever, and so Gautier and the local federation are now building for the future. The team has a new coach this year in Yusuke Kondo, and through their grassroots development program, they are hoping to groom young enthusiasts — like Gautier and others before them — for successful careers on ice.
“I think we have a strong talent pipeline coming down. A couple of guys on the junior program are gonna make it to the men’s team in a couple of years,” Tenedero said. “Sam [Bengzon] and I both have sons in the youth program, trying to get into the game. I think to sustain the sport, we really need that grassroots program.”
As for their next stop, the national team will be competing for the first time in a global tournament in March 2020, joining the IIHF World Championship Division IV battle in Kyrgyzstan. While technically rookies in the world stage, Fuglister likes the team’s chances, buoyed by puso and the support of the Filipino fans throughout their SEA Games run.
“When our legs are heavy, fans carried us with chants and cheers. It’s hard to express how it feels when you hear a whole rink chanting ‘Philippines,’ but it makes you want to run through a brick wall,” Fuglister said.