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Meet the Minnows: Challenge Cup of Asia Begins in Kuwait City

It's late April, so the hockey world is naturally intensifying its coverage on the sport's best.  The NHL playoffs' first round is coming to an end this week, and what was once a group of thirty teams will be brought down to an elite group of eight.  Every game is broadcast on cable and network television in North America, and will be from now through the awarding of a Stanley Cup Champion in early to mid-June.  For European audiences, and those in North America without a NHL team to support in the final few weeks of the season, the attention is on the IIHF World Championships which begin this Friday in Bratislava, Slovakia.  The rosters are starting to trickle in from around the world, and the initial analysis is that this is a much more talented group than was available for last year's year end party in Germany.  

However, on the complete other side of the international hockey world, are the IIHF's minnow nations, competing in the desert heat of Kuwait City.  Six nations have made the trek this time to the Challenge Cup of Asia, making it the biggest ice hockey tournament that Kuwait has ever hosted (they also hosted last year's four nation Gulf Cup).  In contrast to the heavy media coverage and easy access that the NHL playoffs and IIHF World Championship provides, all we get for coverage of this tournament is a simple webpage on the IIHF's website, giving the schedule and the score as well as a link to five of the team's rosters (no Thailand for some reason).  

The tournament is smaller this year than in past years, probably due to the fact that many of the nations also participated in the Asian Winter Games back in late January/early February in Kazakhstan.  Only three teams that participated in that tournament are also competing in this one, and two of those are Persian Gulf states (hosts Kuwait, as well as the United Arab Emirates).  Thailand is the lone completely dedicated nation so far, having competed in every CCoA to date as well as the AWG.  Last year's CCoA Champions, Taiwan, have decided to skip the competition this year.  

Hockey in Asia is dominated by the legitimate winter sports countries:  Kazakhstan, Japan, South Korea and to a lesser extent China and North Korea.  Even Kyrgyzstan, a cold Central Asian nation that is not an IIHF member, were able to field a national team at the Asian Winter Games that easily beat the CCoA level competition in that tournament's Premier Division.  For these nations, the hockey experience largely begins and ends at the shopping mall.  Small, non-regulation size skating rinks in shopping malls started to spring up in westernized places like Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia in the 1980s and 1990s, and they initially attracted ex-pats from North America and Europe, but locals began taking up the ice time themselves.  For most countries, it hasn't expanded beyond that mall setting yet, and playing on a regulation size ice rink is a novel experience, only to be found at the Challenge Cup.  

When the IIHF decided to set up a satellite office in Japan to administer the development of the sport in the Far East, the concept of the Challenge Cup was born as a way to allow for international competition that was both affordable and appropriate to the competition level of the new hockey nations.  Since the first tournament in 2008, we have had ten different nations participate in the annual tournament, and there have been two non-IIHF members who have took part in the Asian Winter Games as well (Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain).  Previous host cities include Taipei City (2010), Abu Dhabi (2009), and Hong Kong (2008).  This year's participants include Kuwait, UAE, Thailand, Hong Kong, Macau and India.  All have taken part in the tournament before, and in fact every Asian IIHF member has taken part in either this event or the World Championships program.  

Here's a Google Docs Spreadsheet showing the tournament's progress to date.

That cannot be said about Europe, or other disparate regions of the hockey world like Africa or South America.  There are plenty of smaller hockey nations that must participate in international exhibitions, or self-organizing tournaments.  The model seems to be working, or at least providing a reason for continued participation in the national hockey program for the various Asian nations.  I think we could also eventually see two CCoA tournaments, one for the mid-East region/West Asia exclusively, and one for Southeast Asia.  Provided that nations like Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia apply for membership into the IIHF in the near future (all have national teams), the tournament might become too big for a single continental tournament.  

Perhaps the format could be the basis of a regional qualifier program for future participation in Division 3 of the World Championship program.  It would give an entry level competition for smaller European nations such as Moldova, Georgia, Macedonia, and Azerbaijan.  Small states such as Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Andorra could use the tournament to sustain their programs.  An African tournament could be organized in the future, with nations like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Kenya and Namibia (currently an inline only nation) competing against current Division 3 mainstay South Africa.  (South American hockey is generally limited to inline participation, although ice hockey is played in some parts of Argentina, Chile and Brazil, though we're a long ways away from an IIHF sponsored tournament on that continent).

But for now, all we have is the humble Challenge Cup of Asia.  The United Arab Emirates are the stars of this event, but they shockingly lost 5-4 to Hong Kong in their first game.  Other scores from the first day of action saw Thailand predictably rout the infant-stage program from India 29-0, while the hosts Kuwait beat Macau 8-3.  The tournament runs all week, concluding on April 30th.