On August 24, 2017, the Philippine men's national team won the first-ever ice hockey gold medal in the history of the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games). The victory put a tropical country on the winter sport map (we hope you don't fail to see the irony in that).
But before they captured the dream, it wasn't all TV guestings and medal incentives for these local Mighty Ducks. The relatively young team (officially just a little over a year old) almost didn't get the chance to wear the flag due to a series of ill-fated circumstances.
FHM dropped by the team's recent practice at the SM Skating Mall of Asia Rink to speak with some of the community's prominent figures about its arduous journey to relevance.
Christopher Sy - President, Federation of Ice Hockey League, Inc. (FIHL)
Petronilo Tigaronita - Secretary-General, FIHL/team manager, men's
LR Lancero - Forward/defenceman, 22
Julius Santiago - Defenceman, 21
Patrick Syquiatco - Defenceman, 22
Roy Serrano - Father of Miguel Serrano (Forward, 17)
Despite the sweltering heat, ice hockey has actually been around in the Philippines for years now in the form of minor competitions. It came down to the authorities—the likes of Sy—and the ever-supportive parents of the players to unite everyone, making it official.
Sy: These players used to join expats in the Manila Ice Hockey League (MIHL) annual tournament (season). I talked to some of the latter about being the selection committee for the national team. The submitted names were formalized after I watched them play
Tigaronita: Before, it was more of recreational ice hockey only. We realized, "The kids are not going anywhere." After organizing the federation, we had the Philippine Olympic Committee recognize us, but not before proving our competitiveness. In 2015, the men's and peewee teams brought home double gold. Then we filed an application to the International Ice Hockey Federation, which gave us associate membership last year.
Serrano: When they [the players] started in the bantam, mga bata pa yan. Ang hirap ng sport, lalo na nung maliliit pa sila. Ikaw ang magtatali ng sapatos nila, magliligpit ng gamit. They had to start playing at an early age. Imagine how hard it was for the parents to get this team going for the children.
Lancero: There were small competitions going on in Manila. It was really a small hockey community.
Syquiatco: We used to be youth rivals, coming from different clubs. During amateur tournaments, we always battle each other.
Santiago: We hated each other.
Lancero: It was pretty weird but fun at the same time.
Santiago: Around five months before the tournament, there was a training camp for those who wanted to compete. Dun nila pipiliin yung final roster.
Once the lineup was decided upon, it was back to work for the 20 men and the federation. Several problems hounded the team, none more important than the lack of facilities. Fortunately, the FIHL was able to partner with SM Skating for discounted ice time.
Sy: We have on-ice and off-ice [training]—bodybuilding, sprinting, and sometimes, field hockey. During their own time, the players hit the gym to do exercises, with or without a program.
Serrano: Unlike basketball, which you could play almost anywhere, dito, sa ice lang ang training mo. Kung gusto mong mag-excel, you have to do off-ice training by yourself. So sa bahay pa lang, nagpa-practice yan ng puck handling. Yung pader nga ng garahe namin nagkawasak-wasak na dahil pinagpa-practice-an.
Then came the major acid test: the Asian Winter Games (AWC) in Sapporo, Japan, which was their first official tournament as Philippine team. In Division II of the competition, they placed 13th and captured the bronze medal—not bad for a debut.
Sy: Everything is all about mindset; the skills are there. I have to give credit to the boys, who fought hard. The Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) asked me, even Commissioner Ramon Fernandez, "What's our target for the AWC?" I said, "I will bring home a medal."
Syquiatco: Everything was so professional. Coming from amateur play, it was so different there. Everything was provided, there were separate locker rooms.
Santiago: At the same time, it was hard, because it was snowing—the temperature was around negative five, and we were not used to it. Iba rin inside the rink, sobrang lamig talaga. I think the first few days, dun kami nahirapan. Nag-adjust naman, pero most of us nagkasakit. Ha ha!
Lancero: Honestly, I didn't even know why we're there. "Why is the Philippines part of the winter games?" Everyone was in their fur coats and suits, then our national team had jackets. "Kaya ba namin 'to?" Ha ha.
Tigaronita: It was a very good learning experience for the boys, because for the first time, we went full-contact. In the MIHL, incidental contact lang, pero hindi yung talagang they'll hit you against the boards. We went against Kyrgyzstan, medyo nahirapan tayo (lost 5-10). Pero parang yun yung break-in nila.
Santiago: Nung unang game, sobrang kawawa kami. Sobrang aggressive at intense nilang maglaro, yung ilan sa'min sobrang na-shock talaga. For the first 20 minutes, 0-5 kami, we didn't know what hit us.
Syquiatco: Huge adjustment, but eventually, we got our rhythm as a team.
Tigaronita: We faced Macau for the bronze, which was a blowout (9-2).
Sy: We were supposed to get silver, but we played against countries with mixed nationalities. Kazakhstan had five Russian players.
The high from the successful AWC campaign was short-lived because almost half of the squad was hit by the eligibility issue. Just like other national teams, the Mighty Ducks was bolstered by half-Filipinos, who weren't initially allowed to play.
Tigaronita: One week before, we had eight guys who were declared ineligible to play. The requirement was 16 months of residency and two seasons here. My argument was, "How can that be possible when the federation itself is only 15 months old?"
Lancero: I was part of the eligibility check. It was such a hassle because I had to secure an Affidavit of Residence from both parents. I had to go to my previous schools for the student records. I had to file a work certificate. Sinabi ko sa kanila, lumaki ako sa Pilipinas. Mukha naman akong Filipino, di ba? Ha ha!
Santiago: And we didn't really talk about it, to avoid distraction.
Syquiatco: The mentality was, "We'll just play our game, no matter what."
Tigaronita: We were about leave for Malaysia, but Carlo Tenedero and Paul Sanchez, one of our key players, still hadn't been cleared.
Santiago: That was really hard for us, especially when we were already there. Nag-training kami nang hindi namin alam kung makakapaglaro sila. We had to adjust our lines, move forward on defense.
Tigaronita: Upon arriving, we made an appeal. During our second day there, on the 20th, the chair allowed them to play.
Syquiatco: We just never stopped believing na makakalaro sila. It was a huge morale boost when we all found out that they were eligible to play. That was before the first game.
Tigaronita: Another setback was Miguel Relampagos tearing his ACL during practice, two days before we left. I was so busy with the eligibility issue, hindi ko naasikaso yung player replacement! Sabi ko, "Sumama ka na lang. Dun kita papalitan." Tsaka ko ngayon pinalipad si Hector Navasero. Yun ang ups and downs.
With everything sorted out at the last minute, all the contingent had to do was to make the country proud at the SEA Games—or so they thought. After taking care of Indonesia and Singapore, the PH crew barely survived Malaysia in the semis via shootout (8-7).
But their last hurdle turned out to be captain Steve Füglister's suspension versus Thailand due to rough play, which the governing body argued was unintentional.
Sy: My goal was really gold. Even in PSC meetings, everybody looked at me, I said, "Yes. I know the players." It's just playing smart. With the opposing teams scouting our key players, we mixed them up. They got confused with our lineup.
Santiago: Sobrang daming nanood, kahit training lang. Especially when we played against Malaysia, punung-puno yung stadium ng tao. Sobrang nakaka-stress yung area.
Tigaronita: You couldn't hear yourself thinking, ganun kaingay. Homecourt eh, nasa mahigit 3,000 yung nandun, napuno yung mall nila. Pag sa atin yung puck, binu-boo. It was demoralizing.
Syquiatco: It was a different experience to be with the athletes from other sports. You'll just hear about a fellow Pinoy winning gold medal. That was a morale booster, in a way.
Lancero: If we have a rest time, we were just in our rooms, watching the SEA Games on TV and cheering for our countrymen.
Tigaronita: When it was announced during the directorate meeting that Füglister was given a suspension, nag-file agad ako ng protest. We paid $200 then and there, appealed within an hour, and reviewed the video. It was denied.
Syquiatco: I was really, really scared, baka ang liit na ng tsansa. We were expecting Thailand to be our toughest opponent, tapos dun pa siya mawawala.
Santiago: Hindi ka talaga makakatulog! Ha ha!
Tigaronita: Na-delay yung game, kasi nandun pa kami sa arbitration court to face the jury, but to no avail. In the end, they still upheld the referee's decision. Ang maganda dun, fired up yung mga bata. Nag-step up sila eh, for the country and Steve.
Serrano: With a complete lineup, dehado ka na nga, mawawala pa yung pinakamagaling mo—nakakapanglumo.
We all know what happened during the finals of the regional tournament: the national team came out swinging against the heavily favored Thais, and managed to protect the lead (5-4) until the final buzzer sounded. The rest, as they say, is history.
Serrano: Kumbaga sa basketball, walang tatalo sa'tin kung Southeast Asia lang. Ganun ang Thailand sa ice hockey. Sa AWG nasa higher division sila.
Santiago: Na-shock sila (Thailand) na first period, 3-0. Makikita mo sa bench parang nag-aaway sila kasi hindi maka-score. In-undermine nila kami ng solid eh, I could see them; hindi nila alam yung nangyayari. Natambakan namin sila.
Syquiatco: I remember during the last period (humabol kasi sila eh), I didn't want to play kasi takot akong magkamali. Baka ako pa yung maging dahilan ng pagkatalo. That was going through my mind.
Lancero: Everyone was pumped up after a Cadiz's goal. This was when we knew we had a huge chance of winning the game. I remember when someone passed me the puck, I was in the neutral zone. I was rushing the puck towards the defensive side, and there was a defender right in front of me. As I skated outside towards the boards, I had no chance of entering the net. I was already in the corner, when I saw Nico Cadiz right in the middle. I took a straight pass to him, wide open at his stick. Nico received the pass, as he hit the net he scored, and that was the moment we won the game.
Tigaronita: I can remember with 30 seconds to go, kapit-bisig kami nila Füglister at Relampagos. Tumatalun-talon na kami. Cynthia Carrion (chef de mission to the 2017 Southeast Asian Games), who was in front of us, looked back and asked, "Why are you guys rejoicing? It's still the third period." Sabi ko, "Ma'am, in hockey we only have three periods!" Tapos nagsisisigaw na rin siya!
Santiago: We all started crying. I wasn't going to cry, and then I saw my teammates like, "Oh my God, we won gold!" It's really emotional when you win gold, especially at the SEA Games, which is on another level.
Tigaronita: When they raised our flag, umiiyak talaga kaming lahat. I still get goosebumps. I'm used to raising the flag as a school principal, but seeing it in a foreign country because of a gold medal is something else.
Serrano: Actually, hanggang ngayon hindi ko pa nga akalain na magkaka-anak ako na gold medalist eh. The fact na mag-represent ka lang, okay na eh. Then winning gold on the first attempt, pang-pelikula talaga. Nakanganga ako! Ha ha!
Syquiatco: After the game, there was a ceremonial handshake between the teams. Naalala ko talaga, when I shook someone's hand, hindi siya makatingin. Medyo sore loser.
Lancero: I still couldn't believe that we were about to get those medals, as the first ice hockey team to win gold at the SEA Games. All in all, it was just an amazing experience.
Photography Lian Dumas