What Happens When You Enter a Cage with Sticks? A summary of the 2018 Mekong Cup.

By Rockefeller St. Bernard

My mission was a cage. I knew that place. But I also knew that those inside were hardly the predictable sort. Those who carry sticks rarely are. It had been a year since my last visit. Insert useful clich? here: “Expect the unexpected.”

First unexpected scene: a collision with two Cambodian stick carriers. It would be sometime later when I would learn these stick carriers’ names: Greg and Na. But for now, they were anonymous, watching Na wrap Greg in protective padding, her smile as big as the armor she’d strapped to him. I knew I’d arrived to the proper (unpredictable) place. The ideal opening to instantly feed the curiosity of my one-year hiatus. “Someone has to do it,” Greg said to me, putting on a mask as he noticed my lengthy pause to (overtly) inspect the scene. Yes, I suppose someone does…but you’re all just volunteers, right? Okay, I only heard myself saying that, but it wasn’t aloud – not yet, anyway. My time with questions for Greg and Na would come soon enough. First, I had to take my seat among the others…curiosity for the cage. Expect the unexpected.

The Wood Styx.

Twenty-four times they’ve done this. From Phuket to Bangkok. In time continuum terms, that’s 24 years. Not everyone has returned. New faces to replace them, new sticks to carry them…into the cage, the young, the old. People with stories to tell about why and how they got there. The willingness to compete will find volunteers. What’s at stake, you ask? There’s a trophy, bragging rights, pride that lasts (at least) one year. Getting your hands (and hearts) on that requires skill. I saw lots of that from where I sat. If you want to know the rules, remember, don’t take your eyes off the orange ball. Without it, there would be no cage, no sticks, no teams, no Greg in net…no Na helping, her smiles to make it all feel okay. Ball hockey, people, ball hockey.

The cage in Bangkok made human by the legendary Vancouverite, John Stevens (John Stevens Arena), himself with the most returns to this event (22 of 24). The teams in version 24: Bangkok (two), Hong Kong, Singapore, Chiang Mai and Cambodia (led by Greg and Na). The 24th Annual Mekong Cup Ball Hockey tournament. The United Kingdom, no strangers to diplomacy and sporting combat, hosted (and houses) the cage. Ball hockey Bangkok style. (Side note: the cage is shared with cricket – diplomacy, right?).

Marcel Bouwens of the Thai Stix (white) trying a wraparound pass.

Fast (possibly) facts. Ball hockey was invented in 1883 by a group of Canadian pelt traders (Murray Scott and Casella John) bored of, well, chasing pelts. They carved sticks and shaped a ball from frozen cloth (allegedly orange). Ball hockey, people, ball hockey. When I asked Yves Gaboriault, Mekong Cup chief organizer, MVP goaltender, a man with levels of hockey passion that few possess, if the Bangkok Wood Styx (Bangkok’s “second” team) was named as homage to the ragtag band of nineteenth century pelt traders, he grinned and laughed (you’ll never forget a Gaboriault belly laugh), shouting, “Ah oui!”. Wood Styx and Thai Stix, Bangkok’s teams. And it was only fitting that they should play each other in the semi-finals.

Full disclosure: a personal bias. Apparently somewhere in my lineage there was pelt-trading-hockey-playing going on. Hey, who doesn’t cheer for the underdog? Tournament swagger belonged to the Thai Stix, reigning champions. With no shortage of veteran talent, a long list that includes the ever-crafty Captain, Devo Keer and the MVP ball wizardry of Kevin Makela, predictable results were expected to happen. This year’s version of the Wood Styx might have lacked veteran talent (aside from Saskatchewan journeyman, Captain Kelly Cailes and arena founder Mr. Stevens) – but what they did bring was high energy hockey and the element of surprise.

Paul Stoddart of the Thai Stix (white) battling against Jordan Ashton (dark) of the Wood Styx.

Several of the Wood’s new additions weren’t even born when the Mekong Cup started. Among them, Carly Hill. Hailing from Montreal, Carly boasts extraordinary talent, a hockey resume that showed why she was one of the most skilled in the tournament. Anchoring the defense with master shot-blocker Neil (Barkerville Nelly) Parkin, Carly and the Wood Styx proved that the expected would not happen. Bangkok vs. Bangkok was arguably the best game of the tournament. Physical, fast, entertaining…a 6-4 score. On to the final versus the always dangerous Hong Kong Islanders, more Mekong Cup success than any other team.

Meanwhile, somewhere on the fringes of the cage, I spotted Greg and Na…my chance to understand how their journey took them to this event. “I’m a retired Canadian firefighter,” Greg informed me. “And now I divide my time between Quebec City and Phnom Penh.” Rolling my hands, “So…retired…that makes you—” “70,” Greg declared, cutting in. “Seventy and playing goalie…I suppose someone has to volunteer,” I said. “Of course, but I enjoy it,” Greg replied, pausing… “Na plays ball hockey too,” lightly tapping pads into her knee. My questions were immediate. Turns out, Na is from Svay Rieng Province, neighbouring Vietnam – and the first from her village to take up ball hockey. Under Greg’s goaltending and Na’s management, Team Cambodia turned in some very respectable results – and made a lot of new fans along the way.

The Wood Styx’s Carly Hill heads up court with the ball.

After getting past Singapore in the other semi, Hong Kong emerged victorious in the final, defeating the feisty Wood Styx (but not their homage to ball hockey forefathers). The Hong Kong cage dominance on Thai soil continues, but now they take back the trophy knowing that Bangkok is home to two strong teams; the competition is a lot more intense on this side of the Asian continent – ah oui!

MC Yves once again did an exemplary job with the awards ceremony. Fed with the consistently delicious British Club buffet, participants stayed on late into the evening, an event that, as always, included a charity auction. Without sticks in their hands, ball hockey players can certainly dig deep for a very good cause. 30,000 baht was raised for Soroptimist International (www.sibangkok.org/scholarships).

Devin Keer (white), captain of the Thai Stix, fights for ball possession.

Kegs of beer empty and the staff packing up after a great evening, Greg and Na bid me farewell. “Will we see you here next year?” I asked. “Yes, that would be good,” Na said, smiling all the way to Svay Rieng. Ball hockey players have stories to tell…something one can expect at the Mekong Cup. My curiosity is growing for the 25th Annual…and that is very good indeed. 

The 24th Annual Mekong Cup Ball Hockey Tournament, Feb. 2-3, 2018 at the Bangkok British Club was generously sponsored by Hootsuite, a Canadian tech company doing great things in Asia-Pacific, and the outstanding services of Bangkok Nursing Hospital (BNH). At last count their team of skilled nurses bandaged up at least three grateful players.

The Thai Stix.