By Trista di Genova
First published Jan. 4, 2009 in The China Post
“Mr. Hockey” Tommy Sullivan, who has led Taiwan to impressive victories as the national team coach, is confident in the future success of Taiwan’s players, despite some organizational challenges. (Photo: CIHL.com.tw)
When you meet Tommy Sullivan, he carries the very focused air about him of an organizer, a builder; and in fact, he’s doing all he can to do just that — bring Taiwan hockey to the international scene, perhaps to shine.
He’s been playing hockey since he was four, and “I left Prince Edward island off the coast of Canada for another island the same size,” he said in a Taipei exclusive with The China Post Friday evening.
Studying business at university, he went on “a big hiatus” — five years — from hockey to focus on soccer. He spent three years in South Korea, where he was a volunteer at the World Cup games in Seoul.
“When I was in Korea I’ve never seen people work so hard and consistently, just go, go, go. No stop. And I want my hockey players to do the same thing.”
When he came to teach English in Taiwan in 2003, he was interested in looking into the hockey team.
“I saw an ad in the newspaper for coach position. I didn’t find out until afterwards it was for roller hockey, not ice hockey! On the very first day, my coach asked me if I was ‘a purist,’ that is, to feel that real hockey’s only played on ice. ‘Is there any other way?’ he said.
At the time, Taiwan did not have much of a tradition in the sport.
“The first ice rink opened in Shijr in 2004, a small one in the middle of a mall. At that time, they didn’t have an ice rink in Taiwan at all — they were often built in warehouses, like one in Taichung six years before. Hockey started getting popular there, and then one day, they showed up to practice and it was all shut down. Taipei rinks were often built in bowling lanes. The roof once fell in, it collapsed on the ice. An old taxi driver I met remembers how in 1960 there were four rinks in Taipei.”
In the fall of 2003, Shijr started a league of 4 teams, he says, made up of half foreigners, half locals, led by four individuals. Two teams didn’t pay their fees for ‘ice time,’ so the league was shut down after only 4 or 5 games that year.
“We wanted to keep going, so Geoff Lecren approached the Chinese Taipei Ice Hockey Federation (CTIHF) and got permission for us to operate our own league. Four more joined on as executives — myself, Geoff, Bob Ford, Rob Dombowski, so there were five of us involved in planning.
The amount of Taiwanese players dropped at first, because it was organized by foreigners, he says, 70-30 in favor of foreigners for two years. Last year, the ratio hit about 60-40, so the gap’s getting smaller.
In the past two years, his Division 3 team Taipei Typhoon worked hard and saw a string of impressive achievements, and Sullivan became head coach of the Men’s National Ice Hockey Team in Taiwan.
“Last year, we finished second, so it was a good year for Taiwan hockey — second in Asia, the first time they’d ever competed! And we won the Challenge Cup of Asia (IIHF) in Hong Kong this year. This was the first time Taiwan ever won at an international competition for roller and ice hockey.”
This was also quite a jump in improvement since they played in Germany in 2007, finishing 7th in the World Junior Roller Hockey championships.
“We won the last three championships, but finished third this year,” he says.
Taiwan’s the host for this year’s competition, the IIHF World Under-18 Championships at the end of February, but this time Tommy won’t be coaching.
“Monday, I was named national team head coach again, and I had a plan to go; then Wednesday I’m not,” he said with chagrin. “We placed third this year, so whatever team wins, they get the chance. The team finishing second wants to go to the Challenge Cup of Asia in Dubai, March 15-20th, so they’re going to be Chinese Taipei.”
“It’s not like we have back home, where the coaches are appointed, and they set a certain time to train,” he explained. “Here, if your team wins the national competition, that coach becomes the national coach.”
In his spare time, he’s coaching the next generation of players at the Mono Hockey Club, coaches eight teams at a junior high school, and physical education at Taipei Adventist Preparatory Academy.
“After 14, they have to start going to school more often. The parents, who are often quite wealthy, see education as more important. This year, though, we finally got an influx of 12 teenagers who have made the league better,” he said, “although in terms of skill level between individual players, the gap becomes larger.”
Being the national coach in Taiwan is still an unpaid volunteer position, but he’s been donating his time and energy “to expand the game.”
Hockey now stretches all the way across Taiwan, he says, especially in Taipei (with 7 clubs), then Kaohsiung, Tainan and Chiayi, all little communities that have little hockey clubs. An estimated 1,000 people play hockey in Taiwan.
“For roller hockey, the guys down south are better, tougher. They don’t have money so they work a lot harder.”
Tommy’s main concern is that sports organizations in Taiwan are not organized or developed enough.
“They have competitions once in a while, just now and again, once a month usually, the Holiday Cup. Every sport has competitions — the bigger sports of course get paid. Also, students do get academic credit from playing — if your team wins, it’s very prestigious. Seconds and thirds don’t get anything, though, for all their hard work.”
SUCCESS WITHOUT SUPPORT
Sullivan and his team have been succeeding, even with a lack of facilities, lack of organization and very little to no support from the government.
“Every time they have these competitions, right now the parents have to pay for it. That’s NT$15,000 each to go to Hong Kong, a lot more for places like Mexico. Imagine what they could do with a little help,” he points out.
In Taiwan, there is a system of sports organizations that are supposed to support local-level teams. In his research, he found hockey listed as one sport that is nationally funded, but there’s a Catch-22:
“There were 53 criteria, and the 50th is that if a sports organization like ours doesn’t have the funds, then they don’t have to do anything [to support it].
“So for the time being, “I pay for myself,” he says, to go to camps and championship tournaments around the world, although “I would do anything I really want to do for free.”
“The future of Taiwan hockey is okay. They just need directors who are active, organized and know sports, and know how to build something. For Taiwan’s ice sports, the hockey scene is actually probably ranked 3rd or 4th in Asia — behind Japan, Korea and probably China. Hong Kong might claim they’re better, but I don’t see it. They seem to have the same problems as in Taiwan, the same issues of organization. [A hockey colleague ] told me we’re about 4-5 years ahead of Shanghai.”
China has an additional advantage: two NHL hockey teams are invested there by sending their coaches and playing for the team — New York Islanders (with Project Hope) and the San Jose Sharks (Shanghai Sharks). Plus, there’s been the creation of the Asian Pro Hockey League, so far consisting of Korea, China and Japan.
Another area for improvement is the need for sponsors. The Sababa Bears is currently the only team sponsored in the league, by Sababa Pita Bar. In the past, Sullivan helped bring in NT$450,000 from Smirnov Ice, the Tavern, and now defunct Shannon. But since Taipei Arena is a government facility, alcohol is not allowed there.
“You know where we drink? 7-11. So (7-11 and Uni-President), if you want to sponsor us, we’ll be in a neighborhood near you,” he jokes. “But I don’t understand why there isn’t more sponsorship. First of all, it should be a tax break. We don’t want alcohol, bars, smoking sponsors; we’re a sport. We want business sponsors that need to give something back to the community, like McDonald’s or online gaming. We want to draw families, kids, so the sport can grow. We also want to keep the games free, so people can come and watch.”
Denis Chauvin, a friend and fan of hockey in Taiwan, suggests one way of raising hockey’s profile in Taiwan: “a huge PR turnaround,” doing beach cleanups and more volunteer social work, such as making it possible for poor kids to start skating.
“Asian athletes are going to be hugely successful in the future,” Tommy observed. “Look at Yao Ming, Wang Chien-ming. They’re thriving because they have a work ethic that North Americans lack. Not just that, but respect for themselves and parents not to be involved with the things of youth, like drinking, drugs and partying. They don’t do that here. They’re obedient. If ever they got organized, they’d be major superstars in the world of sports. I can totally see it. I see athletes here are going to be surprising for other people. They’re getting taller, stronger. They just need a little toughness. But still, they have an athleticism we’re not born with — like a natural flexibility, speed. They’re not going to overtake us, but they’re going to be discovered. And who knows if they’re going to be moving to North America, or if sports are going to be become more global competitions.”
“When I was young, growing up, I went to Camp Andrews Hockey Camp. Alan Andrews, the hockey school owner, used to say to us: ‘Write down your goal, what you want to do. Not just in hockey but in life, and you gotta take small steps to get there. Put it on your wall or ceiling, and you can look at it, and that’s what you’re gonna strive for.’ I knew when I was a kid I wanted to be a professional hockey player. I worked my best, and didn’t achieve it.”
But recently,” he continued, “I had the opportunity to revisit the program with two Taiwanese students. I was very suprised at the level these guys had, compared to local Canadians. The people in that camp were also really surprised and impressed. As I was watching the boys play, I heard the buzz was going on about these students from Taiwan. That day, we went to the same session of writing down our goal. I changed my goal, as goals are wont to change; now I want to take hockey to a more international stage. That day, I also saw the bond among Taiwanese kids with the Canadians. Sports have been used for years as political stage, so this could be Taiwan taking small steps toward some new relationships with other countries.”