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–Interview by Michael Sawatsewi–
At the 30th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, Thailand “produced a flawless week of hockey,” as described by the International Ice Hockey Federation. Having won all six of their games, the national men’s ice hockey team of Thailand went on to take the gold on December 8, 2019, after beating Singapore 8-0 in the final showdown.
One of the Thai team’s star players, Thai-Japanese athlete Hideki Nagayama, has been playing ice hockey since he was in sixth grade. He also happens to be a former student of RIS. (Hideki would’ve graduated with the Class of 2015 had he not left at 17 for the opportunity to play junior hockey abroad.) Hideki is also one of the most spirited advocates for ice hockey in the country. Fresh off a recent trip to Japan to help promote ice hockey to young players, Hideki took a moment to chat with us about his time at RIS, the growing popularity of ice hockey in Thailand, and his team’s SEA Games triumph.
Congratulations on taking the gold at the SEA Games! What does this victory mean to you and what’s next?
It’s been a great experience for me for sure! Next, we’re focusing on the upcoming 2020 IIHF World Championship Division III in Cape Town, South Africa, from the 20th to the 23rd of April.
We just need to keep maintaining ourselves and continue proving to the country that we are the best team in Southeast Asia! This year I became an alternate captain, but for the past two years I was fortunate enough to be team captain and experience how to lead a whole team and how to lead by example. As a team, we have to have the same mindset and be willing to make sacrifices and think about the team first.
Of all sports, especially living in Thailand, how did you even get into ice hockey?
I was just ice skating with my sister after school. It was just one of those days, and then a hockey player there asked me if I would be interested in trying hockey.
What is it that you love most about playing ice hockey?
I think being on the ice makes the sport itself different from any other sport. It’s one of the fastest [sports] in the world, and I love how fast-paced the game can get. It’s a contact sport, so all the players have to be constantly focused during the game; otherwise, we could easily get hurt.
At 17, you left Thailand to play junior hockey in Canada and then Europe. Could you tell us about your time there?
I was in Canada for a year and a half, then I moved to Sweden for a year. I spent another two years in Denmark, followed by a year in Germany. I returned to Thailand around April of last year. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned [from the experience abroad] is how to be responsible, both on and off the ice. I also had to be able to adjust to each country’s culture and people. Each country has its own culture. You can’t expect the people to adjust to you since you’re in their country after all.
Ice hockey is still considered a minority sport here. What kind of challenges have you and your teammates faced in order to play ice hockey in Thailand professionally?
There is no professional league in Thailand, so most of the national team players work [other jobs] too. You really have to do your best to balance responsibilities for both national team events and your own work life.
How often do you train?
When there’s no tournament, I usually go to the gym every day, except on the weekends, and ice sessions three to four times a week. However, when training camps begin, we’re in the gym or on the ice pretty much all the time.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not on the ice?
I model as a side job. I play the piano and guitar as well. There can be days where the stress from playing ice hockey knocks you down on your knees. It’s always nice to just take a break from hockey and find something else to do and recharge for a little.
You also founded the HN Hockey Clinic. How has interest in ice hockey grown in Thailand over the last few years?
It’s really amazing to see how hockey has grown here these past couple of years. Lots of young kids have started to play. I’ve even seen a couple of current RIS students, which has been great! The ice hockey community in Thailand will just keep getting bigger and bigger from now on.
I just finished up my first HN Hockey Clinic project, the Kushiro Challenge Project, where I brought 33 kids to Kushiro, Hokkaido, in Japan for exhibition games against one of the best youth teams there. The whole point of the project was to let both parents and players witness a higher level of hockey playing and to share an experience [that could] help them improve and take their game to the next level. I would say it went really well, and I got positive feedback from the parents, too! When I see a kid’s willingness to learn something new, I feel I’ve done my job!
What advice would you give young people looking to be professional athletes? Or their parents?
Parents tend to forget how much they might be pressuring their kids. It doesn’t matter what sport they’re playing. Sometimes parents need to put themselves into a child’s position and be mindful of what would make them lose their passion for a sport. I was lucky enough that my parents never complained to me about anything regarding the games. I would tell parents to just encourage your kids and tell kids to always try to enjoy it. Every time I get to be on the ice, it’s just pure happiness for me.
What’s your favorite memory of RIS?
That would probably be lunch breaks and interacting with my school friends. Just being able to get hockey off my mind for a short time was really great. And I still keep in touch with tons of RIS friends! I try to catch up with them as much as possible whenever I have the chance.
Visit the HN Hockey Clinic page at Facebook.com/HNHockeyClinic for more information on upcoming projects. Follow Hideki on Instagram @hidekinagayama