MANILA, Philippines -- A shopping mall in tropical Manila closes for the night but a once ragtag team of skaters is hitting the rink aiming to make history in the Southeast Asian Games.
Dubbed "The Mighty Ducks" after the 1992 Disney film, the Philippine men's ice hockey team are targeting gold in Malaysia where the SEA Games begin on Saturday -- a far cry from the days when their players knew only of the sport from watching movies.
"'The Mighty Ducks' has been an inspiration to most hockey players, especially if you're in a tropical country like the Philippines," team forward Lenard Lancero, 22, told AFP by the rink in the mall where the team practise.
"You've only been watching hockey, seeing it just in the movies. But when there was ice hockey here in (the mall), it's like a dream come true."
In a nation known for its pristine beaches and obsession with basketball, ice hockey has only recently emerged as an unlikely but increasingly popular sport.
What started as a hobby for boys who would ask their parents to take them to rinks in the country's sprawling shopping centres slowly turned into a competitive sport with the creation of a national federation two years ago.
Teenage students and professionals in their thirties all represent their country, and they bagged a bronze medal in their first official tournament at the Asian Winter Games in Japan in February.
Despite their achievements, the squad still get strange looks from surprised shoppers as they haul their gear to the rink, said defenceman Julius Santiago, 21.
"But when they see us play, they're really amazed. They like watching it because it's intense, especially when there's full contact. And Filipinos love fighting, the hitting, so that's what excites them to watch us play," he said.
- 'Baby steps' -
This year marks the first time winter sports have featured in the SEA Games.
French-Filipino Francois Gautier, the team's alternate captain, said practising in the Philippines was much tougher than in France, Canada or the United States which have thousands of skating rinks as opposed to the Asian nation's four.
"It's more organised there for sure. The level is higher. Here, we're doing the baby steps," Gautier, 33, told AFP.
Funding is another challenge, with sticks, helmets, shin pads, elbow pads and gloves costing at least $1,000 a set. The group gets by with contributions from corporations, the government and their own pockets.
Team members divide time between school or work and training as well as cutting through Manila's notorious traffic to get to practice sessions.
For Lancero, a fresh graduate, goals outweigh obstacles.
"If your career is into sports, that's really different from most Filipinos. People think where is the money in sports? But we've been representing the national team and a couple of years after, it will be a career I hope," he said.
Compared to older teams like Thailand and Singapore, the Philippines is a newcomer and an underdog but the squad are confident.
"I think our chances are really good. We're actually one of the favourites. I think we're considered a big threat to the other countries," Gautier said.
The squad hope their performance in the regional games will bring them a step closer to their Olympic dream and earn the sport a bigger following in the Philippines.
"Every single one of us here, playing or coaching, we are leaving our mark. That's extremely gratifying than being in a system that's already been established for years," said Gautier.
"Here we're making history every day."
© Agence France-Presse
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