It’s nearing closing time as shoppers filter out of the SM Mall of Asia, preparing to brave their evening commute home. But as stores begin to close and hallway lights dim, one area continues to teem with life.
Tucked into an alcove along the third floor, the SM skating rink looks otherworldly inside the emptying mall; bright lights illuminating the ice as a lone figure skater jumps and spins to her music. Next to the entrance sits a group of young men waiting for their turn on the ice. They fill the bleachers as they talk among themselves, unbothered by the rinkside chill and full of energy despite the late hour. More of them come in as time passes; pairs of skates and duffel bags as big as their bodies slung haphazardly over their shoulders. These are the men of the Philippine men’s national ice hockey team, and their night has just begun.
To say that Filipinos love sports is an understatement; this is a country that stops traffic for boxing matches, that trends worldwide during college basketball finals.
But for a country with all sun and decidedly no winter, it’s no surprise that winter sports are barely given a second thought. Here, figure skating and ice hockey are more spectacle than sport: fun to watch, not quite to do, and definitely not to compete in. How could we, when we don’t even have any ice?
Over the last three decades, however, a small yet determined community of players and fans have transformed ice hockey from an obscure novelty to an unlikely source of national pride.
Among them is Francois Gautier, who now serves as alternate captain for the men’s national team. It’s hard to miss him as he walks around the rink, surveying the ice with an air of quiet authority fitting for one of the team’s longest-serving members. Clad in a training shirt with the Philippine flag printed on the chest, his broad frame and no-nonsense expression are what you’d expect from a national athlete, but with a laid-back demeanor reminiscent of an old friend.
Born and raised in the Philippines, Francois—or French, as the team calls him—first learned about hockey from an American neighbor who brought a hockey stick back from one of his trips to the US. “We had no idea what it was, but we wanted one, too,” he says. “Eventually, my village had a bunch of kids running around with hockey sticks.”
Before we had ice rinks, Filipinos learned to play street hockey, a variation of the sport played along empty streets or parking lots. The objectives were the same, with players on foot or on rollerblades, using a small ball instead of a hockey puck. With limited access to information and no programs to learn from, though, these impromptu games were fairly chaotic.
“We sort of knew the rules, but not really,” he says. They played with whoever and whatever was available, often without a complete set of rules or the right protective gear. “I was nine years old and playing with a half visor (for adults). It was basically the Wild West.”
A lot has changed since then.
Philippine ice hockey has slowly grown over the last few decades, thanks to a tight-knit community of players, coaches, and fans.
In September 1992, the country’s first skating rink opened in SM Megamall, to promote ice skating as a leisure activity. In a moment of kismet, the Disney sports film The Mighty Ducks was released a month later, sparking a worldwide interest in ice hockey among young people.
It seemed things had fallen right into place for the sport, but without a federation or organized league, the next few years would see ice hockey in the Philippines grow only through the sheer willpower of its fans. Amateur players—at the time, mostly expats and foreign-born Filipinos who had tried the sport abroad—would gather to play, creating informal clubs and later a recreational league in 2005.
Efforts to encourage local development eventually led to the establishment of the Federation of Ice Hockey League (FIHL) in 2015. Serving as local ice hockey’s official governing body, the FIHL became an associate member of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) in May 2016, and secured Philippine Olympic Committee membership in June that year.
For a country with all sun and decidedly no winter, it’s no surprise that winter sports are barely given a second thought.
Now recognized as the Philippines’s official national team, the men’s ice hockey team—nicknamed the Philippine Eagles, but also dubbed our country’s Mighty Ducks—competed in a slew of regional tournaments, including the Challenge Cup of Asia (CCoA) and the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games. They then landed gold in 2017’s SEA Games and bronze in 2018’s CCoA*, thrusting the team and the sport into the spotlight.
“Now we’re off to Worlds,” says French. The team was originally slated to debut in Division IV of the World Championships in 2020 before the pandemic response canceled competitions for the rest of the season. “And hopefully one day, while I’m still alive. . . why not the Olympics?”
Training sessions start with stick-and-puck: an open session for players to skate, shoot, and practice at their own pace. Now devoid of music, the rink fills with a different kind of symphony: blades scraping against ice, sticks clacking against boards, and hockey pucks striking goalposts. The boys take to the ice like fish to water, moving gracefully across the surface as they run their drills, cheering for or laughing at each other as they pass.
“Graceful” isn’t a word often associated with ice hockey, but the scene unfolds like a strange, aggressive ballet: players glide across the rink in an almost choreographed dance, weaving through bodies with elegance and poise until a mistimed move or wayward hockey stick sends them skidding into the boards. They’re on their feet not ten seconds later, and after a good-natured shove at the offending teammate, are back to zipping across the ice.
Their confidence makes it easy to forget how young they are—most of this session’s attendees are teenagers; members of the Under-20 team who have recently received their senior call-ups.
As with most sports teams, the success of the men’s national team relies on the development of its young talent. And after nearly two decades at the helm of the local ice hockey movement, many of its veteran players are shifting their focus to mentoring the new generation. Among those is Kenwrick Sze who, at 15 years old, is the senior team’s youngest (and newest) member. Ken has already been on the ice for nearly as long as he’s been on his feet.
“I’ve been playing since I was three,” he says. “I remember watching [a game] from the top of the rink, and it was so cool—they were standing on two blades!—so I asked my mom if I could play, too.”
After impressing on the junior circuit, this year will see the wunderkind play with the senior team for the first time. “I feel so proud to represent the country and be part of the national team,” he says. “It’s been really fun [so far]; I’m [gaining] more experience and learning from others with more experience, too.”
Practice jerseys are color-coded; players with like-colored jerseys compete as a team during end-of-practice scrimmages.
Many of these young players are also proving to be leaders in their own right, like 21-year-old defenseman EJ Sibug, who helps coach the Under-08 and Under-10 teams. Born in New Jersey to Filipino parents, EJ came back to play for the Philippines as a way to connect to his family’s roots.
“It was always a dream [of mine] to come back to my parents’ home country, and I saw it as an opportunity to pass on what I learned [while playing] in the US,” he shares. “To do this with a community that means so much to me—it’s everything.”
“I do struggle, but it’s fine because I love hockey. I’d do anything to keep playing.” <callout-alt-author>Ken Sze<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
Things get more intense as the night progresses. The coaches cover offense and defense, skills and strategy. Bodies slam against the boards and spill onto the ice. A rogue hockey puck flies over the protective glass. Their goalkeeper, Jaiden, takes a shot straight to the helmet. It’s fast-paced, intense, and exhausting just to look at.
All the while, a small group of people watch from the sidelines, laser-focused on every play. Many of them are present for every game and training session—friends and family, whose support has been the driving force behind the growth of Philippine ice hockey since the ’90s.
Thanks to positive team results, increased media coverage, and support from both the local and international federations, the last few years have seen the Philippine ice hockey scene grow from a handful of supporters into a bonafide fan base. And what it lacks in number, Filipino fans make up for in sheer enthusiasm.
“Hockey is like a religion where I’m from, but Filipino fans have passion for the game,” affirms head coach Steven Yip, who hails from Canada. “It’s a fast and exciting sport, and Filipinos are attracted to that. When mall-walkers come by the rink, you can see it on their faces.”
“To do this with a community that means so much to me—it’s everything.”<callout-alt-author>EJ Sibug<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
This passion was most palpable during the 2019 SEA Games, where the team played in front of sold-out crowds on home ice. Seeing the stands at full capacity, with spectators decked in Philippine colors and roaring at every play, makes it difficult to believe ice hockey was ever considered a niche sport.
“It’s every Filipino athlete’s dream to play on the big stage, but to [do it] at home, and seeing my family and friends there, was different,” asserts 19-year-old forward Jan Aro Regencia. “It was really a blessing.”
Young forward Ken Sze wears a cage helmet for players under 18; defenseman EJ Sibug sports a half-visor.
It was also particularly special for French, who was given his first chance to represent the country on home ice. Though the Philippines had previously hosted the CCoA in 2018, he was deemed ineligible to play as he was part of the organizing efforts with the FIHL.
“There was a lot of pride in having [CCoA 2018] here, but not being allowed to play was painful,” he recalls. “So to compete in the SEA Games, with sold-out crowds so loud in every game, was surreal.”
The Philippines settled for a bronze finish that year, but to play at home was a dream come true for the players and their longtime supporters.
“My parents were both born and raised here, and [for them] to see the rink sold out—to see one built—was something they’d never imagined, even through a live stream,” says EJ.
Practice ends at 11:35 p.m. The players rush to the locker room, pulling off helmets and pads and playfully knocking into each other as they do. French is the last to leave the ice, gritting his teeth and limping after aggravating an old injury, but still managing a tired smile to passing rink staff.
Exhaustion blankets the rink as the adrenaline begins to fade. The players find their spots among piles of duffel bags and hockey sticks, catching their breath after another grueling session. Still, spirits remain high—jokes and laughter continuing to fill the air as they prepare to finally head home.
“Sometimes I do struggle, but it’s fine because I love hockey,” Ken says. “I’d do anything to keep playing.”
The next few years would see ice hockey in the Philippines grow only through the sheer willpower of its fans.
With only four ice rinks in the country, and all of them inside shopping centers, the national team can only hold practices while the malls are closed. That means late nights and early mornings. Aside from sharing ice time with other national skating athletes, only one rink satisfies the conditions needed for ice hockey.
But the players brush off these challenges. Their profound love for the sport—compounded by the pride of representing the country— keeps them going through the grind of the late-night practices, the disappointment of losing games, and the growing pains of leading a winter sports program in a country that’s just starting to realize its potential.
“We’re still learning, and we have a lot to improve on,” says French. “But for [a young] program, I think we’ve accomplished quite a lot.”
He pauses to find the right words, and for a moment, it’s easy to imagine him as the wide-eyed nine-year-old falling in love with the sport. “It’s still a dream come true for me. I’m still living the dream every time I put on that jersey.”
* ERRATUM: The Philippine men’s ice hockey team earned a bronze medal finish in the 2018 Challenge Cup of Asia, not in the 2017 Asian Winter Games as was previously published.
This story was originally published in GRID Volume 09.