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Hockey night in Mongolia

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" You meet people from UWO wherever you go, but seven of us, at one time, in Ulan Bator?"

By: Herb Shoveller BA'78, MA'80

It could have happened in class. Maybe the Spoke. Or a Mustang football game.

But instead of taking the easy route, seven former Western students got acquainted late last year while freezing their tails off playing ice hockey outdoors in � of all places � the middle of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.

The seven � Scott Laprise BA�84, Greg Smyth BA�90, Loron Orris BA�86, MBA�93, John Laroche BA�85, Robert Sin Leung Chiu BA�92, Herb Shoveller BA�78, MA�80 and Greg Markson, at Western in 1970-71 � travelled from Hong Kong and Singapore to play in the Ulan Bator Cup, 1998, the first international ice hockey tournament ever held in Mongolia.

Altogether, 31 players travelled to Mongolia to form two teams, one representing Hong Kong, the other Southeast Asia, in the tournament. Of the total, there were 21 Canadians on the junket of a lifetime, more than one-third of whom, incredibly, were from Western. A squad of expats from Beijing also participated, along with the host Mongolian national A and B teams.

Remarkable? Come on. After all, Ulan Bator, in the middle of winter with temperatures ranging from -18C to -30C during the day is hardly the destination of choice if you�re looking to hang with fellow former students.

"It�s a clich�, I know, but it really is a small world, especially knowing that I played with a bunch of UWO alumni that I never met before coming to Asia," said Chiu, from Englehart, Ont. and now sales manager for North Asia for Thomson ESG, a division of Thomson Corp.

All but Laprise play in the recreational South China Ice Hockey League based in Hong Kong. But it took the five-day trip to the tournament for the seven to put together the connections, even with a couple of helpful wild cards (Orris was president of the UWO students� council in 1986-87 and Smyth played hockey for the Mustangs from 1987 to 1990).

"We came together as a group of players from five or six countries, and to have that many be from UWO was pretty incredible," added John Laroche, director of regional business development, Asia/Pacific, with ACNielsen. "You meet people from UWO wherever you go, but seven of us, at one time, in Ulan Bator?
Getting there is neither easy nor cheap. It�s close to three hours by air from Hong Kong to Beijing, then, after an overnight layover, another two hours to Ulan Bator. It was in Beijing, in fact, when someone finally started doing the math, in a scenario pretty much like this: "Hey, did you know John went to Western?" "Yeah." "You guys went to Western? So did I." "Get outta here, Rob." "So there�s me, Loron, Greg and Greg, John, and now Robert." "Crazy, eh." "Hi guys, I�m Scott. I just got in from Singapore �"

Curiosity and a sense of adventure delivered all of us to Ulan Bator along with, it seems, that irrepressible inclination to let a pad of outdoor ice turn grown men into little boys regardless of their level of play.

That�s what the UB Cup 1998 represented. In impoverished Mongolia, where the average annual wage is $150, any notion of indoor rinks is beyond consideration. Hockey is played outside in the seemingly endless, cold but sunny Mongolian winter. Boards are made of planks, strung together vertically. Old-fashioned wire mesh encircles the ice. Inexplicably, barbed wire tops that. Regular light bulbs strung across the ice give the (false) impression one could play at night.

"The last time I played hockey outside was intramural at UWO in 1970-71," recalled Greg Markson, a senior pilot with Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong, conjuring up an image of the outdoor rink at the south end of J.W. Little Stadium.

Laprise � who was head of student police, served on student council and won intramural hockey titles with King�s � was the most determined to make the trip. A week earlier during a game in Singapore, he�d bashed up a knee so badly he�d been told to stay off it for a month. But the managing director for Asai of Dade Behring, a medical diagnostics company, suited up for three of his team�s five games.

"I had to come," Laprise said, and it was clear there could be no other choice.

In Mongolia, sports more suited to the culture�s nomadic heritage are most popular, in particular riding, archery and wrestling. Nevertheless, Russians from the former Soviet Union, which held the isolated Asian nation in its Communist sphere of influence for almost 70 years, introduced hockey to Mongolia.

For the Mongolians, hockey may be the one decent leftover from those years. "The Russians brought hockey, but this was the first international tournament," said Mongolian player and organizer Choiji Baasandavaa, clearly dismissing the notion that any past games with the Russian could be deemed "international."

So at the first annual UB Cup, 1998, in truly frigid temperatures, fans lined the boards two and three deep to witness what our hosts told us was the event of the winter in Mongolia.

"When I was in net there were people behind me trying to call out my name," chuckled Orris, now the director of marketing in Asia for the National Basketball Association. "The other thing I won�t forget is, here you are, playing hockey in a pretty isolated place, and you�re in the shadow of one of the most important Buddhist temples around. "

Added Chiu: "The Mongolian tournament made me realize that no matter what the language, we all spoke the language of hockey and that transcends any race or language barriers. Being one of only two Chinese-Canadians at the tournament, it was evident from the different nationalities that hockey appeals to a melting pot of cultures."

Smyth echoed Chiu's sentiments. "It shows the sport is a great way to bring people together from so many different cultures, even if it is - 30C," said Smyth, who works for a U.S. investment bank.

In a world filled with countries with the odds stacked against them, Mongolia ranks near the top. The climate is harsh � with short, hot summers and long, cold winters � and what economic prospects exist (cashmere, oil, copper and many other minerals) are inhibited by the prohibitive costs of getting goods to market. Yet the inhabitants of this most sparsely populated nation on the planet welcomed their strange visitors with a warmth, enthusiasm and sense of humor that belied their circumstances.

Take Choiji, the Mongolian organizer, for example. He�s head of the Mongolian Stock Exchange, with a total market capitalization of $700,000 Cdn. "Lots of good bargains," he pitched with a laugh.

As for the disproportionate number of former UWO students on the trip, it probably helps that there are about 2,000 Western grads in Hong Kong alone.

"My work has given me the chance to see fascinating parts of the world and my degree from Western has made it possible for me to pursue those kinds of opportunities," Laroche concluded. "And there I was, in Mongolia, with this great experience of playing the 'most important' hockey game of my life, at 35 years old."

To a player, everyone vowed they would return to play again in next year�s UB Cup.
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