It began innocently enough, the ‘local’ skating/diving equipment store – Bunn’s sportoo was organising the first ever region-wide roller hockey tournament. I would have only been 13 years old at the time. It is that age where not only is everything possible, but one’s birthright. I was a hot-headed teenager whose impetuous nature would get me into trouble more often than not. If I couldn’t see a good reason why something couldn’t be done, I’d do it and anyone who wanted to get in my way, they’d better have a very good reason. Most reasons didn’t make the cut.
So, in my naivety, I entered a team of my friends. We had recently joined the newly-formed Team Rollerblade, a marketing tool for the inline skate manufacturer of the same name. As if that wasn’t enough to embolden us to dangerous levels, we had also recently watched the rather B-grade film “airborne” which featured Chris Edwards and Team Rollerblade (the American variant) which involved, among other things, death-defying half-pipe stunts, roller hockey games and a race downhill at breakneck (literally) speeds. My reasoning was simply that we were clearly the most competent skaters in all of Hong Kong (already a somewhat dubious claim) and since inline roller hockey was such a new phenomenon in the region, we would undoubtedly be the best people around at it. Winning, for us, would be a matter of course.
In the week, yes – we felt that one week of preparation was quite adequate, preceding the competition, we trained rather half-heartedly in a disused carpark from which we were regularly evicted by bored security staff. It would have been simple to find an alternative venue at which we would have encountered no resistance from security, but that would be missing the point – we were teenagers. There were six of us, Bryan Tan – the punching bag of the group who, to be fair, was actually quite a good right-winger (RW), Taran Chada – a sound field hockey player, a Sikh warrior and our goalkeeper (G), Michael Higgins – a fellow Australian, prankster and vocal left defender (LD), David Plant – birdwatcher (in every sense of the word) and right defender (RD), James Skeggs – unfairly labelled as a crybaby in his early years of high school (you had to hit him pretty hard to make him cry), top goalscorer and left-winger (LW), and then there was me – chief shit stirrer, captain (C) and center (C) (this way, I only had to remember one letter of the alphabet). We were in for a nasty shock.
When we arrived at the venue, a very small outdoor skating rink situated in Victoria Park, it was packed. Not only was it packed with parents of skaters, but it was packed with players in uniforms, coaches, support staff and the like. We had discovered a world of fairly serious roller hockey whose existence we were never aware of. Immediately the doubt began to creep in, it was assisted greatly by my mother who exclaimed “the wildcats are going to win, I hope you don’t have to play them, they’ll kill you”. Thanks mum. Even James’ mum, known for her never-say-die encouragement of her offspring didn’t look entirely confident of our prospects. The six of us looked a motley crew with our uniform (which we had arranged in a ring-around the night before) of mostly-white t-shirts and black shorts. When we signed up, we were asked for our team name. We needed a name that would inspire us and confound our opponents, a name that would strike fear into the hearts of our mere-mortal enemies. A name that was worthy of us. We were “The Babylonians”. An obscure reference to an obscure in-joke between me and Michael which came out of our eccentric Irish maths teacher. No one understood it, no one really liked it, but most importantly no one could pronounce it. To those for whom English is a second language, our team was often the “Baby lions”, which certainly doesn’t strike much fear into my heart.
So it began, a knockout competition with the winner advancing after only two 8-minute halves. This was intense. Our first game was largely a stalemate but for a late goal from Bryan which came off a rebound. We didn’t look very convincing, but I put it upon myself to convince us that we were going to win. While my mother was busy cheering for the other teams, I was constantly shouting words of encouragement to our team members and egging them on. Our first victory had broken the ice and, now in a slightly more relaxed state of mind, we were able to play better. Luckily, although it wasn’t official at the time, I was at least the region’s best speed skater (later that year, I would take 4 gold and 1 silver in the HK open speed skating championships). I decided that what we lacked in actual hockey skill, we (or at least I) could make up with fitness and, importantly, team cohesion. We were close, very close. Ten years later, I was still in contact with all but one of the original six.
Things began to happen, goals were scored (for, never against) and spirits were raised. My mother continued to insist that we had no chance at winning. I kept insisting that we would. I insisted so loudly that I do believe that the team were really starting to believe it, I know I was. As we progressed, teams tried different strategies against us but to no avail. Taran was the tournament’s immovable object, conceding zero goals prior to reaching the final. Try as they might, no team could find a chink in the armour of the Babylonians. We won most games two to nothing and then we reached the finals, where we faced (unsurprisingly) the Wildcats – a highly skilled team who trumped some of their opponents by as much as eight to nothing. I would be lying if I said that we didn’t feel slightly intimidated going into the final.
I was completely confident that we would emerge victorious. Why? I’m not sure. On paper, we were always a long shot but out there on the field we were something else. We talked to each other sure, so did other teams, but most of what was communicated had nothing to do with the talking. We just knew where we were, who was open for a pass and when to score. The wildcats were scarily efficient, had superb technique and had clinical finishing play which had always found the back of their opponents’ goal-nets. But we had something different, we had heart, we played with what Bruce Lee would call “emotional involvement”. It started out as anger (which was in abundance, being teenagers), but we eventually converted than anger into an irresistible force. We moved like water and we wanted it more. I wanted it more.
When the final came, everyone was watching. Those who had been wiped out of the tournament by the wildcats and those who were still incredulous that they had been rubbed by our rag-tag band of bros had all stayed back to see who would win. I remember very little of the game itself. I remember that the impossible happened, we were scored against. I remember that we scored in reply very quickly. I remember that we went into sudden death overtime and had a shot which I was sure was a goal but was judged to have not made it over the line. After almost thirty minutes of play we were still tied at one apiece. It then came down to a three man penalty shootout.
The tournament had seen several of these, but not in any of the games which had involved the finalists which meant that we had precious little experience at it. The wildcat’s goalkeeper had also conceded his first and so far only goal of the tournament in the final and was on good form. He did, however, have a weakness – the goals were smaller than regulation size so he crouched on his kneepads and was able to cover the goal to either side of him from a stable base. This left him with a potential Achilles heel in the gap between the top of his head and the crossbar of the goal – an awkward place to make a catch at the best of times. In retrospect, I really shouldn’t have gone third given that I was recognised, even by the opposition, as the most likely to score in the shootout being a sniper as I was. In any case, being the last to take a shot gave this event just the kind of fairytale ending that it needed.
I approached the ball in the centre circle in much the same way as the guy at the end of the first Mighty Ducks movie did it. I thought it would be cool and it also gave me a chance to relax and gather my thoughts. I could hear people saying things in the background, giving me advice, trying to sledge me (I had become notorious for my sledging during the tournament) but the words disintegrated before they reached me. They broke upon me like water on rock. I approached the goal at a medium pace, all the time looking the goalkeeper in the eye, I was waiting for something. He flinched, as if to blink, and in an instant the ball was in the back of the net. He saw it coming, but I had made him hesitate for just long enough to misjudge it. It sailed above his head and under the crossbar while both his arms crossed in the air where the ball had been just moments before – I had threaded the eye of the needle. And that was that, I scored the only goal in the shootout to give my team the unwinnable victory. My mother couldn’t believe it, neither could James’.
There was never a second Bunn’s Mini Stanley Cup. The event hadn’t affected sales enough to justify the enormous effort required to organise it. We toyed with an inline hockey club at school briefly but that soon got canned over insurance issues. The six of us haven’t played much roller hockey since. I’m probably the only one who still skates. Yet, whenever I meet with my old friends, it always seems to come up. Clearly it wasn’t just an important event in my life, but also in everyone else’s. Its like we can all close our eyes and remember what it was like, when we gave it everything, fought with all our hearts, when everything just worked; like the gears of an intricate clock. We moved like water and for a few precious moments, we believed that anything was possible – we dared to believe in ourselves and we were rewarded for it.