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They're skating into history

By Agence France-Presse in South Tangerang, Indonesia | China Daily | Updated: 2017-02-15 07:47

Indonesia will ice its first hockey team in international competition at Asian Winter Games

They come from a tropical country better known for palm-fringed beaches and big-wave surfing than winter sports.

But Indonesia's plucky hockey team hopes to defy the odds when it takes the ice for the first time at a major international tournament at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo next week.

The players are part of the first contingent of Indonesian athletes to participate in the Games, with the Southeast Asian nation also sending figure skaters and short-track speed skaters to compete in Japan.

They're skating into history

For the part-timers on Indonesia's hockey team - similar to the Jamaican bobsledders of the 1988 Winter Olympics, whose story was turned into the hit comedy movie Cool Runnings - it will be their toughest challenge yet.

"This is the first time ever they've played in a real international competition," said coach Gary Tan, after a vigorous training session at one of the country's three rinks, on the outskirts of Jakarta.

"It's going to be a very tough task - but it's not going to be impossible."

Tan, a Malaysian who has been drafted to get the team into shape before the tournament, shouted orders at the players dressed in red and yellow uniforms as they skated at high speed, practicing body checks and trying to smash the puck into the net.

They huddled on the ice at the end of the session, as Tan gave them pointers.

Plucked from obscurity

Hockey - widely regarded as the world's toughest team sport - is a change for many of the players, who are not paid to be on the national team and earn their living at day jobs ranging from office worker to entrepreneur.

Indonesia is sending a 23-man squad - 20 players and three goalkeepers - to the Games, many of whom have played in club tournaments abroad.

But they will face more experienced opponents in their group at Sapporo, which will welcome some 2,300 athletes and supporters from more than 30 countries from Feb 19-26, including China, Iran and Malaysia.

"Obviously we are the underdogs," conceded defenseman Felix Utama, a 26-year-old whose day job is in the IT industry.

Even getting a hockey team together to practice regularly is a challenge in Jakarta, a chaotic, sprawling metropolis with some 28 million residents.

The players must travel up to two hours through the city's notorious gridlock to get to the rink in South Tangerang, a commuter city outside the capital. Most only make it to half of the practices.

Hockey is an unlikely sport for anyone to play in the sprawling archipelago, which lies in the tropics and where the mercury rarely drops below 25C.

Tan said a major challenge for promoting hockey in Indonesia is that the sport is not ingrained in the national culture like it is in colder countries.

"The biggest thing is the mindset, the culture," he said.

"If you are brought up in a hockey culture, a winter country, then it is completely different because everybody eats and sleeps hockey."

Nevertheless, the sport - invented in Canada - has won a small but dedicated following as a more exciting alternative to disciplines in which the country has traditionally done well internationally, such as badminton and weightlifting.

Tan hopes the upcoming tournament can prepare the players for a more modest goal: the smaller Southeast Asian Games in Malaysia in August.

But the Indonesian government is more ambitious, and envisages one day sending a hockey team to the Olympics.

"If they perform very well, probably we would like to take part in the next Winter Olympic Games," said sports ministry spokesman Gatot Dewa Broto.

And while the chances of a giant-killing seem remote, Indonesia's players believe they have a chance of pulling off a surprise in Japan.

"We are going to show you what we've got," said assistant coach Andianto Hie.

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