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Hockey Philippines’ March Miracle in Mongolia; Featuring a Jersey Guy

Merry Christmas. Miracles are a theme of the holiday season. And one happened back in March 2023 way down in the lowest tier of the IIHF World Championships by the Philippines. A massive win in Mongolia capped off by a New Jersey born player, no less.

TOPSHOT-SEAGAMES-2017-IHOCKEY-PHI
From the humble beginnings in 2017, the Philippines shined in Mongolia in March 2023. The above is where the work took place to lead to that miracle six years later.
Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images

Merry Christmas. One of the common themes about Christmas seasonal media is the existence of miracles. Maybe it is in a change of heart. Maybe it is in an event happening to help someone who could use it. Maybe it is on 34th street. However, I want to point out that sometimes a miracle is a result. A result of a lot of hard work, nights in and nights out that flies entirely under the radar, and efforts for something few partake in and even fewer even think is possible. This post is about one of those.

One of my favorite posts of 2023 was going over all of the non-New Jersey Devils hockey that takes place in this state I call home. It shows that hockey is bigger than just the NHL and for many, those youth teams or high school teams or third-tier junior hockey or ACHA hockey or Princeton Hockey is their achievement in this sport. To that end, I want to write about a miracle that happened in an unlikely part of the hockey world involving an even more unlikely team. (And there is even a New Jersey connection.) This is a post covering the 2023 Division IV IIHF World Champions: the Philippines Men’s National Hockey Team. Context is needed first with a key question.

The Philippines Has a National Team? In Ice Hockey?

This is a common first question I have received when I bring up this IIHF tidbit. This makes sense. Ice hockey is a winter sport and it requires quite a bit of money to play. The Philippines is a tropical nation and not a very rich one. There is absolutely a passionate sporting culture among the Filipinos. Basketball is the national past time from pick-up games, rec leagues, massive games between schools, and a vibrant professional league. Boxing has been huge since Manny Pacquiao broke onto the scene. The women’s soccer team got a nice bump in awareness from the Women’s World Cup. But ice hockey?

Truth be told, it is a very niche sport in the Philippines. The country has four ice rinks and all four are associated with malls owned by SM Prime Holdings. There’s Mall of Asia in Pasay, an area so large it hosted the FIBA World Cup this past Summer. There’s the Megamall in Manila. There’s the Southmall in Las Piñas. Finally, there’s the Seaside City mall in Cebu City. Are the rinks meant for hockey? Not really. Only two are listed per the IIHF’s website. Rinks were built more for novelty and to help promote the Mighty Ducks movies. Which was legitimately an influence on the earliest national teams. Even as a nickname for the national team then. And contributing to its niche nature is its small number of registered players. 88 men, 48 women, and 15 refs in a nation of over 114 million people and counting.

This is understandable as the sport is relatively new to the nation. Whereas even smaller hockey nations like, say, Poland, can cite a hockey history going back to the early 20th century, Filipino hockey is a contemporary. Eventually, there was enough interest to form some teams even for a recreational league based in Manila back in 2008. A national team set up was not even formed for another 7 years with the Federation of Ice Hockey League. This group governs hockey in the Philippines and is more known as Hockey Philippines.

They joined the IIHF in 2016 as an associate member and growth happened. A league was founded in 2018, appropriately called the Philippine Hockey League with a Philippine Minor Hockey League for development. Of course, the league and the governing body was still heavily based out of Manila metropolitan area since, again, that’s where the rinks are. Apparently mostly in the Mall of Asia. Appropriately, all four teams in the PHL are in Manila: the Lightning, the Bearcats, the Chiefs, and the Sharks.

That league seems to host the majority of the national team players. And it is very much a hands-on experience for the players off the ice as much as it is on the iced. They often wear multiple hats just to keep the program going, whether it is coaching up kids, making sure equipment is available, and giving back to others joining the niche that is Filipino hockey. This article by Klea Gonzales in Grid Magazine highlights how they were making it happen just a few years ago. It is very much a hard-scrabble approach for a team in a nation that many do not even know exists.

Welcome to the International Stage...in Your Region

As the Grid magazine article references, the Philippines made their national team debut at the 2017 Asian Winter Games. As they just joined for hockey, they were kept to the second division with the likes of Kyrgryzstan, Qatar, Kuwait, and Macau. It turned out they would take third place. Not a bad start for a national team. The women’s team played in the IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia and took fifth. While outscored by 30, they did win two games by beating Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.

They would make a bigger noise in Asia when they went to the Southeast Asian Games in 2017. Which was also the first time ice hockey was even in this regional tournament. It was not easy in Malaysia as their captain Steven Füglister was thrown out of the game against the hosts for a head-shot. The Philippines won through a shootout after a 7-7 game but Füglister was held out for the final game against Thailand. But the Philippines prevailed 5-4 against the Thais to take a gold medal. Their first as an organization. For such a young national team, getting some victories even in regional tourneys is a big first step.

2018 was another step forward. The Philippines hosted the men’s Challenge Cup of Asia in 2018 and took third place. They entered a U-20 team for the first time in December 2017 and took fourth. The women finished third in Division I of the Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia. 2019 was another step. They took second in the men’s Challenge Cup, third in the U-20 Challenge Cup, and first in Division 1 of the Women’s Challenge Cup. Then there was the Southeast Asian Games in 2019. This is what Grid referenced and while attendance was in the hundreds, that was capacity for the rinks at Mall of Asia. Unfortunately, a one-goal loss to Singapore sent the Filipinos to the Bronze medal game. I’m sure they did not mind wrecking Malaysia 17-1, although they probably wonder if they could have beaten the Thais again for gold if they got there. It was onward and upward for the Philippine hockey team. They even earned a secondary nickname: Mighty Ducks. That movie legitimately had an influence on the sport somewhere.

So far, the Pinoys were establishing themselves in the smaller pool of Asian ice hockey. Nowhere near the level of the bigger teams like Japan or even China, but they were gaining a foothold over some of the other minnows right away. With the Philippines as a member of the IIHF, surely they would play in the World Championships at some point. Back in 2017, the president, Christopher Sy, expected participation to happen within three to five years. They did apply for the 2020 WCs, where they would join the lowest division, Division IV, and play in Bishkek, Kyrgryzstan.

Then COVID-19 happened and that did not happen. Not in 2020. Not in 2021. And not even in 2022.

The World Championships Debut - in Division IV

Typically, when one refers to the World Championships, they mean the top division. The one where Canada, the United States, and 14 other nations compete annually. Players who did not make the playoffs or got eliminated early attend. It is not as massive as an Olympic tourney, but it is the main prize in the IIHF. There are divisions below it. In a sense, this is where the action is. It is often a dog fight to just get promoted. And a tougher one to not get relegated the next year.

The reality is that there are haves and have-nots at this level so you can see a country like, say, Turkey prevail in one division one year and then get sent back there in the next. And it can be crushing if a team gets relegated after trying to claw their way to stick in a division, such as Lithuania last year. Insert sad Dainius Zubrus noises here. While understandable in youth tournaments where great teams age out and the next year up is not necessarily so great, the WCs are all-ages. So it just speaks to the difference in talent levels even among nations not remotely known for their ice hockey.

Enter the Philippines. In 2023, they were finally able to attend a Division IV tourney. Division IV is the absolute bottom. After a five-team (remember the Philippines withdrew) 2022 Division IV tourney finally happened in Bishkek, Kyrgryzstan, the Philippines were set to go to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia on March 23, 2023 in a four-team division. The locale: the Steppe Arena with a capacity of 3,600. The opponents: Kuwait (who did not get promoted in 2022), Indonesia (IIHF debut), and the hosts, Mongolia. Like the Pinoys, the Mongolians were returning to IIHF play for the first time in 11 years.

Thanks to those earlier Challenge Cup of Asia and Asian Winter Games tourneys, the Philippines knew they could beat the likes of Kuwait. And they would like their chances against Indonesia. With one promotion spot on the line to Division III, Group B, the second day of the short tourney would decide it. On March 25, 2023, the Philippines suited up to play Mongolia. Not for the first time as the Filipinos prevailed in the 2018 Challenge Cup over Mongolia. With a near capacity crowd, largely supporting the Mongolian team, they got to see an absolute show. And a miracle that the vast majority of the hockey world missed at the time. Myself included.

The game turned out to be an absolute classic back-and-forth affair. The Mongolian Ice Hockey Federation actually live streamed the entire game to Youtube as well as uploaded a 10ish minute highlight video. I recommend at least watching the highlights because it indeed took up every bit of the 10:18 run time. It was truly remarkable what happened. In case you did not watch even the highlight video, here’s a recap:

The Miracle in Mongolia

First Period: One of the Philippines’ top scorers in the tourney and arguably the future of the national team is Kenwrick Sze. The then 18-year old (now 19) is one of the largest players on the Filipino squad at 6’2” and 212 pounds. The Manila-native has been a part of the team since he was 15 and he blew up in this tourney. He opened the scoring with a banger of a one-timer from the slot, set up by Carl Montano, the 38-year old forward and assistant captain of the squad. Past halfway through the period, 22-year old forward Jan Aro Regencia made it a 2-0 game. Regencia is officially listed at 5’6” and 128 pounds and he was not even the smallest skater on the roster that day. He snuck in from the slot uncovered to slam in a loose puck. Then the Mongolians took their second penalty of the period at 11:12; interference by Batbayasgalan Baatar. 27 seconds later, Sze scored a PPG with help from the Lodi, NJ-born, Jersey Hitmen and Wildcats-developed defenseman Eishner Jigsmac “EJ” Siburg and the captain Manvil “Manny” Billones. Then 23, Grid magazine’s profile noted Sibug was a coach for the U-8 and U-10 teams at age 21. Again, this is a team where everyone does more than just play on the team. The Pinoys were up 3-0 with a mix of production from the growing youth and the previous generation back when the national team was just starting.

Mongolia decided to find a spark in their lineup by switching out goaltender Baatarkhuu Bazarvaani, who gave up three goals on nine shots, for Munkhbold Bayarsaikhan. It did spark two trips to the penalty box for the Filipinos, including the Lodi-born Sibug.

Second Period: Mongolia struck back. After four calls within the first three minutes and change, Mongolia got on the board once the game returned to 5-on-5 play. Chinzolboo Mishigsuren got the home team on the board. After Lenard Rigel Ii Lancero took a delay of game penalty and Carl Montano took a hooking call during that penalty kill, the Philippines head coach took a timeout. The head coach is Juhani Ijäs, a Finn who has coached in Asia for many years. While the timeout worked for the PK to do its thing, the Mongolians made it a one-shot game shortly after Montano left the box. All on a slowly developing play by Enkh-Amgalan Erdenejav, where he just beat goalie Gianpietro Iseppi easily at the left post with some sweeping not-defense by forward Mikel Miller. 3-2 and it would be 3-3 on the next shift thanks to the Mongolians having two men down low to one Filipino. An easy feed from Gerelt Ider to captain Mishigsuren Namjil tied up the game. It would be a good time to use a time out - except Ijäs used it literally three minutes earlier.

Ijäs decided to stick with Iseppi. Like Montano, captain Steven Füglister, defenseman Carlos Tenedero (who stands at a mighty 5’4”), and fellow goalie Paolo Spafford, Iseppi was an elder statesman of the team. Iseppi was the oldest player on the roster at age 40. As with the other older players on the team, he has been through a lot to get Filipino hockey to this point. While I would love to write he locked it down, the decision to stick with him would not hurt. The Pinoy squad did take one stick holding penalty that carried into the third period, tied 3-3.

Third Period: OK. A lot happened here. First, just as Jorell Crisostomo’s penalty ended in the third period, Montano took a tripping call. The Mongolians botched that power play when Ider took a hooking call. Once the game returned to 5-on-5, Mikel Miller redeemed himself. He stole a puck and fought through a stickcheck to put home a rather stoppable shot to make it 4-3. All good, right? Well, no. Billones, who would end up leading the Division IV tourney in scoring, took a minor for tripping. The North Wales, Pennsylvanian born, former Junior Flyer, West Chester University ACHA alum, and Manila-based forward was a on tear in Division IV. But he made an error at this moment. Worse, forward Carlo Angelo Tigaronita took a roughing call for dumping a Mongolian into the Filipino bench. Billones’ penalty was killed. Tigaronita’s ended with Ider tapping in Manjil’s own rebound try over the line for the 4-4 game.

Then, for reasons I cannot ascertain, Mongolia’s goalie got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The livestream did not show what Bayarsaikhan actually did. He did not join the celebration; he was not on camera. But he was assessed the minor and Ider sat for him. During that penalty kill, Batgerel Zorigt took down Montano from behind. The resulting 5-on-3 would yield a second goal for Regencia and a 5-4 lead for the Filipinos. A put-back from a rebound that no one Mongolia could cover because they were down two men. It would get worse for the hosts. The veteran and captain Füglister would one-touch a feed from Tenedero for another PPG and a two goal lead with just under 10 minutes left. A game to essentially decide who wins Division IV and move up in the not-so-easy World Championship ladder and the debuting Philippines have a two goal lead with less than ten minutes to defend it. Would they?

Absolutely not. They would not even make it three minutes in. Munkhzaya Enkhtur said “Not so fast” with a ripper from the high slot to make it 6-5 over a minute after the Pinoy PPG. About a minute after that, Lkhagavorj Davaanyam ripped a wrister in a 2-on-2 rush past Iseppi to tie it up at 6-6. Right off the far post and in, blocker side once more. If I were the head coach, Spafford would have been in already. But the Philippines, with their lead up in smoke, had to hold on with what they had. While they had their supporters in Ulaanbaatar, it was definitely a pro-Mongolian crowd with the feeling that the Mongolians could take this. Just as the Filipinos clawed and scratched their way to have a national team to be competitive this early in their history, the Mongolians surely did the same for their first WC appearance in over a decade. And so both teams battled with the kind of passion you’d see in any post-season game. Mongolia owned the shot clock all game, led by a 21-7 difference in the second period, but the Filipinos were not going to go down so easily. Iseppi made stops. The penalties for the Philippines finally stopped. And overtime would be needed at 6-6.

Overtime: They play 3-on-3 overtime in Division IV of the World Championships. Iseppi made an important freeze within the first 35 seconds on what would be Mongolia’s only shot of the fourth period. After that freeze, coach Ijäs turned to the 37-year old captain Steven Füglister, the New Jersey-born 23 year old defender EJ Sibug, and top scorer and 29-year old Manny Billiones as his three to take the draw. Again, a blend of the near-future, the now, and the short history of Filipino ice hockey.

They took it, won it, and moved up ice. They took their time as you do in 3-on-3. Billiones eventually made a move and put a shot on net. It stayed out, the ref waved no goal, and the puck was retrieved by the Filipinos. Füglister took the puck and banked it back to Billones. All three Mongolians were in line with the right faceoff dot. Billones looked up and saw #24 Sibug open on the left side - the weak side - in acres of space. Billones made the pass to Sibug. The game was on the Am-Fil’s stick. The Lodi, NJ-born Sibug fired just as he got next to the left dot. He fired as he has done hundreds if not thousands of times before in practices, drills, sessions, and more. He went blocker side and beat Bayarsaikhan. Game.

The Philippines Men’s National Team won. The celebration was jubilant and deservedly so. And with the win, they just needed to win their final game over Kuwait to secure first in Division IV. Which was academic. They beat Kuwait on March 26 by a purely decisive 8-0 final score. As the IIHF put it, it was a Golden Debut for the Filipinos. Hockey Philippines’ reward: the very rare accomplishment of winning a short tourney in their first ever WC appearance. Plus, a spot in Division III Group B. In February 2024, they will head to Sarajevo in Bosnia and Hercegovina. They will play North Korea (who didn’t play in 2023 so they got relegated to Group B), Hong Kong, Singapore, Iran, and the hosts.

The Miracle in Summary

Winning a tournament is a big deal regardless of the level of competition or the stakes involved. Winning a tournament in the first time you ever entered it is a rare feat indeed. While it was sandwiched between two big blowouts, that 7-6 OT win in Mongolia against Mongolia to do that is the stuff of legends. Sure, the quality of play is far, far, far, far less than anything your average NHL fan may be used to. But the passion, the competition, and the spirit of the game was in full effect. Division IV may be the lowest division but it is an achievement all the same.

This rare accomplishment is made even more impressive by the fact it was by the national team of the Philippines. Once again, this is a tropical nation where the hockey barely makes a blip on their sporting radar. All the ice is in malls and only one of them is really used for the game. Just under 200 people are registered out of 114 million and several players were born elsewhere before coming back to the Philippines. Sponsorship is a question. Equipment can be an issue. Ice time is a problem here, imagine what it is in a place where it is mostly used for mall visitors. People used to having teams with full staffs are apparently not going to find it. If you’re a player on the national team, then you’re probably doing some other things like coaching younger players, preparing the team, and maybe even working an actual job somewhere. This national team did not even exist until 2015 and they already have a trophy case, with a Division IV championship at its epicenter. For now.

And consider the ones who were instrumental in this win. Steven Füglister was not even a pro player in Switzerland and he was a leader for so many teams when they were just getting started in Asian competition. No, not the best in Asia - Southeast and lesser Central/Middle East Asian hockey nations. He was involved for good (and some bad) in this monumental win. The top scorer in Ulaanbaatar, Manvil Billiones, was originally from Pennsylvania and played collegiate amateur hockey for West Chester University - honestly the first time I learned there was such a school. He was on the scoresheet multiple times, once again being a contributor for the tourney win. On a team where you can count the players at 6 feet tall on one hand, the team developed a Manilan in Kenwrick Sze who can be the offensive force for years to come. Sze had a coming out party in this tourney with six goals and eleven points, including two big ones to open the Mongolian game.

And the game winner came from E.J. Sibug. A New Jerseyan of all players. Born in Lodi. Played for the Jersey Hitmen and Jersey Wildcats among other NJ youth teams. Imagine what it took for him to go to Manila and to keep playing hockey. To keep grinding. And then to represent the Sun and Three Stars and give them something. Give them a massive win in their first ever World Championships. Give them one of the biggest goals ever in the young history of Filipino ice hockey. And to even earn Top Defensemen honors from the short tourney. He’s 24 now and he can continue to be a cornerstone of this squad, following in Füglister’s footsteps. And given how they are built, he may have to be. Given what Sibug has done to get this far, he absolutely will be one.

Of course, it was not just Sibug or just Sze or just Billones or just Füglister. This was a full on effort from the crushing lows to the dizzying highs for the victory. Everyone knew it was just Division IV but for that day in March, it was everything. And those highs were indeed highs. Just about every single Filipino goal was celebrated with exuberance. Far more than the more traditional reactions from the Mongolian squad. A crustier, older school fan would lament that. Why don’t they act like they’ve been there before? Two answers: 1) They actually haven’t. 2) The Philippines represent three stars and a sun on their flag, you can’t possibly expect them to block their own shine.

And just like Sun, the shine can expand. So what’s next?

What’s Next for the Philippines Men’s Ice Hockey National Team

It remains to be seen how they will do in Division III. My first thought is that they will get wrecked because it is hard to go up a level, even among these minnows. Then again, the Philippines have done well against Singapore historically. Outside of the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, they beat them 5 times. One here could be enough to secure staying in Division III for another year. And who knows how far they could go. Thailand, who is up a level in Division III Group A, is a team the Philippines have beaten before as well. The other three nations in the group will be the first time they ever play each other. No one expected much out of the Filipinos in 2017 or in the 2023 World Championships and they established that they are far from just newbie doormats. They could very well establish themselves in Division III in this coming February as they seek to move forward. They just have to avoid last place.

What that even looks like remains to be seen. Core parts of the Division IV team are over the age of 37. While they have a league, it is small and it is not clear where the development is. The roster is filled with players who were born in other places and even got some development time before coming to Manila. The captain, Steven Füglister, is part Swiss and part Filipino and spoke to how the blend of veterans and youth helped the squad in this post-tourney article by Rhia Grana at ANCX. But also spoke to how there is a lot to do that just is not done in other countries because there are actual staffers and other experienced coaches. Father Time does not care about that and it is a real question if the Pinoy squad can lean on a 41 and 39 year old goaltending tandem of Iseppi and Spafford. Likewise with skaters like Füglister, Tenedero, and Montano. Miller is also not a young man himself at 34. They would need to be replaced if they retire. And if his profile at Elite Prospects is accurate, Montano is retired.

However, there is hope in their tourney-winning roster. The team has been able to pull in some players born in America to make an impact such as Sibug and Billones. The under 25-year old part of the roster features Sibug, Regencia, and Sze, who finished just behind Billones in tourney scoring. They can be a core for the future. There are others on the comeup like 20-year old defender Einzenn Ham, 17-year old defender Dan Carlos Pastrana, and forwards Patrick Abis, Jorell Crisotomo and Carlos Tigaronita - all under the age of 23. If they can find a goalie and some of the vets have something left in the tank, then coach Juhani Ijäs may be sticking in Division III once more. They just need to keep pulling talent and hopefully get more interest and investment just in the sport of hockey at all, much less players to represent the Sun and Three Stars.

And so the hard work and hard nights and hard efforts shall continue at Mall of Asia and elsewhere. The grind to find, develop, equip, and prepare players shall continue. The Division IV win, miraculous as it was for a debuting team, was just one step forward. And perhaps their efforts will lead future miracles. Again, they are not always just given out like a Christmas gift. They can be a result of the work put in even against some steep odds and significant issues.

Thank you for reading. And should you want something more American - yes, even more than a Jersey guy scoring a tourney-winning, group-promotion goal for another country - just wait a few hours for another post.