Published in the Vancouver Sun on Saturday, March 15, 2003
By Daniel Gawthrop
BANGKOK—On the surface, it has all the elements of a classic Thai scam.
A Canadian drifter claiming to be related to a famous hockey personality shows up in Bangkok and sweet-talks his way into a coaching gig with the new Thai national ice hockey team. He’s supposed to report to training camp in Chiang Mai, the mountainous northern city where the team is preparing for the Asian Winter Games in Japan. But first he heads south, to the beach resort where he’s been staying, to take care of some business.
A few days later, he phones the team captain from a prison cell in Phuket, saying he’ll be a little late for the next practice. When the Canadian expatriates who got him the job go down to investigate, he says he got busted for overstaying his visa. And oh, by the way: a few months earlier he was also arrested for drug possession.
Meet Aaron Story, 26-year-old grandson of former Calder Trophy-winning Toronto Maple Leaf and Hockey Hall of Fame broadcaster Howie Meeker. Story, it turns out, is for real. But you’d be forgiven for being a little skeptical at first. Thailand is a haven for down-on-their-luck Westerners looking for a place to reinvent themselves. In this country, any loser can claim he’s a somebody and charm his way into a job or an exclusive club because background checks are so often shrugged off. Story, an easygoing free spirit with thick curly hair, dancing green eyes and a sly grin, does have the look of the vagabond about him. In expat hockey circles, he’s even earned the nickname “Right Sketchy” because he’s so hard to figure out. But Howie Meeker’s grandson? Who’d want to make up something like that?
“He’s one tough son-of-a-bitch,” Meeker himself told Victoria’s Times-Colonist a few months ago, shortly after Story was hired to coach the Thai nationals. “His skills are average, but mentally, physically, he’s one tough kid. He’s been going there [Thailand] long enough, he knows the customs.”
He knows them now, that’s for sure. During an extended visit to Phuket early last year, Story discovered that one of his Thai drinking buddies was the boyfriend of a Thai woman he’d been seeing. Stealing a local man’s woman is one of the more dangerous cultural infractions a foreigner in this country can commit — it’s right up there with insulting the king. When the jealous boyfriend confronted him, Story refused to break off the relationship. The next day, he says, police showed up at his door, demanded to inspect his motorbike and — voilà! — found a bag of methamphetamines planted under the seat.
In Thailand, the pill known as yaa-baa (“crazy drug”) has replaced opium as the number one seller in the regional narcotics trade. Foreigners charged with possession typically face stiff jail sentences that can last years.
Nowadays, the risk is even greater: According to Thai interior ministry figures for last month — the first in the government’s all-out assault on the drug trade — as many as 1,140 people were shot dead by Thai police or gang members. The countrywide bloodbath has been condemned by the United Nations and Amnesty International. Among the dead was a nine-year-old boy, a 16-month-old-girl and her mother and a married couple from Phechabun who were blown away shortly after leaving the police station where they had just paid a fine for marijuana possession and signed up for a training course for recovering drug users.
Story got out of jail after only a week. “It could have been a lot longer,” he told me months later, when we met in Chiang Mai, “but my girlfriend had some good connections with the police.” Still, he had to hire a lawyer to fight the charge. It took seven months, and cost him about $40,000 in legal fees and his job with a real estate development firm back home before Story was finally cleared.
Story is not exactly the spitting image of his famous grandfather. But get him talking about some of the better players on his team, and you’ll recognize that wide grin — the twinkle in the eye that was once Howie Meeker’s trademark in his heyday as a colour commentator for Hockey Night in Canada and TSN. He’s not about to burst into rhapsodies of “Gee willikers!”, “Jiminy Crickets!” or “Like a hoop around a barrel!” But the joy of witnessing a blossoming talent appears to be hereditary.
“For some of these boys, the natural talent level they have, considering they’ve had no hockey influence, is quite incredible. Had they grown up in Canada, they’d be kicking ass,” says Story, sounding more like an outspoken Brett Hull than his 78-year-old granddad.
How does the Thai players’ temperament differ from that of young Canadian players he’s taught? “The kids here don’t whine as much,” he says. “Back home, I always have players coming up to me to complain about everything. Here, you start with respect and it’s yours to lose, whereas at home you’ve got to earn it. Here I could say ‘Jump’ and they’d say ‘From where?’ They imitate whatever I do.”
Born in Kitchener, Ont., and raised in Parksville, B.C., Story was only five years old when he attended his first Howie Meeker Hockey School camp. As a junior, he got as far as the BCJHL’s Nanaimo Clippers and Victoria Salsa and spent two years in Saskatchewan playing for the Notre Dame Hounds. But he turned down a scholarship to North Dakota University and an offer to play semi-pro in Australia — preferring to follow the footsteps of his legendary grandfather, whose skill-based learning system has been a staple at summer hockey camps for nearly half a century. By his early 20s, Story was a regular instructor at Howie Meeker and Junior ‘A’ and ‘B’ hockey schools throughout Canada. But he had yet to coach an actual team.
Thailand, which has a climate most Canadians associate with mosquito-infested jungles and paralysing humidity, is something of an international ice hockey oddity. Although Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have expatriate teams and a few local players, Thailand — a country of 71 million people but only a couple of hundred hockey players and three ice rinks — has become the first Southeast Asian country to ice its own national team. At the Asian Winter Games, it would be the overwhelming underdog against the likes of Japan, China and South Korea.
Most of the Thais learned the game by playing in weekend scrimmages or tournaments against the Flying Farang, a group of North American expatriates in their late 30s and early 40s who play every Sunday in a foggy, puddle-filled ice rink on the fourth floor of a local shopping mall. (Farang literally translates as “white people” in Thai, though it generally means “foreigner.”) Six months ago, the younger and faster Thai players typically dominated the Farang in the opening minutes of a match. But then their game would fall apart as they neglected all the little things that aging Canadian expats knew by instinct after decades of playing: things like winning face-offs, using the boards, blocking shots, pinching and forcing turnovers.
Vanchalerm (Top) Rattapong, a 28-year-old graphic design professional from Bangkok, is a fourth-line centre for the squad. Also the token Thai member of the Flying Farang, he has played the game for 16 years. Top recalls how, when he started playing, equipment was so expensive that each player had to use the same stick for the whole season. “We had to bring chunks of plastic from the hardware store to use as shin pads, and use bicycle helmets for head gear,” he says. Even now, in a country where the average minimum wage is less than $6 a day, no expense is taken for granted. The national team players have to fix their own sticks — including refibreglassing and custom-curving the blades.
During his frequent trips to Thailand, Story got to know a member of the Farang named Jeff LaMantia. Early last year, LaMantia told Story that the Thai government was planning to form a national team and would be looking for a coach. By the time they spoke again in early November, the team was being selected and still hadn’t hired a bench boss. The money wouldn’t be great by Canadian coaching standards — 40,000 baht a month, or about $1,600, plus expenses — but for Story, the chance to return to the game he loved by teaching Thai players the finer points of hockey was too good to pass up.
LaMantia put him in touch with Flying Farang manager Scott Murray, the unofficial go-between for the Thai nationals. “I had no idea whether this guy was for real or not,” recalls Murray, who telephoned Story in Phuket. “So I just told him that if he was interested he should make his way up here, meet the players, and we’d check him out.”
Story passed the audition, but there was still one more hurdle to clear. After signing on as coach on Nov. 20, he returned to Phuket to pick up some of his belongings. While he was there, a police officer asked to see his passport. Story was thrown in jail again, this time for overstaying his visa. After paying a fine of 20,000 baht (about $800), he was released after five days and returned to Chiang Mai, where he finally got to work — although he wouldn’t get his passport returned until the day before Team Thailand’s flight to Japan.
Up in Chiang Mai, where I meet Story in late January, the 22-member Thai national team and their Canadian coach have set up training camp at a hotel and shopping mall complex known as Khad Suan Kaew. There, in the Bully Sky ice rink, Story has put his troops through a rigorous daily regime worthy of his legendary grandfather. From 8:30 to 10:30 every morning since Dec. 1, the boys have hit the ice for power skating drills and a review of all the basics. From 2:30 to 5 p.m., there’s swimming and a dry-land fitness program that includes weightlifting, jogging and running up and down the shopping mall stairs. At 9:30 p.m., there’s another two-hour skating session. After a month and a half, the players’ fitness levels have peaked and their hockey skills vastly improved. They have gelled as a unit, although there’s lots of grumbling about the daily schedule. (They take out their frustration on a makeshift group of local Thai and expat players who have come to play them in a weekend series, thrashing them 10-0,7-1 and 12-3.)
Talking to Story on the sidelines after one of these games, I ask him how far his players have come.
“Oh, a long way,” he laughs. “It’s like teaching elementary school. I really had to show them everything. They didn’t know how to skate backwards, they didn’t know how to do face-offs. And there was some pretty weird stuff, too.”
“Well, one of my goalies didn’t want to use his stick. He said it kept getting in the way, and so he just wanted to play without it. But I sorted him out.”
For Story, the very idea of a Thai national ice hockey team is a paradox: the players are all Buddhists who are slow to anger or be aggressive, yet they’re competitive — eager to excel at a sport many associate with five-minute fighting majors, bloodied fingers and broken noses. “We have such a violent, competitive society, and that’s not how they think,” he says in wonder.
Story also has to play den mother. “They’ve been watching me like a hawk,” he laughs when I ask if he or his players have succumbed to the temptations of Chiang Mai nightlife. “But I make sure they’re up and ready early each morning.” (He couldn’t have kept too strong a leash on them: according to one player I spoke with, the return trip to Bangkok was a cacophony of beeping cell phones as the bus left Chiang Mai station, with players rushing to erase the phone numbers of their Chiang Mai girlfriends before their Bangkok girlfriends could find out.)
At the fifth Asian Winter Games in Aomori, Japan, held Feb. 1 to 8, things don’t go so well. Along with Kazakhstan, a “B” pool hockey power that has played against Team Canada, the host team is also strong. In a 1998 tournament, Japan beat a group of Thai juniors 58-0. (At the same event, Thailand lost 92-0 to Korea — probably the most lopsided defeat in hockey history.) While Thailand’s roster is dominated by featherweights in their late teens and early 20s — guys who make Paul Kariya look like Todd Bertuzzi — Japan’s roster is bigger and more experienced, and includes a player from the Montreal Canadiens’ farm system. Final score: Japan 39, Thailand 0. Game Two, against China, is a slight improvement for Thailand: a 24-2 defeat.
For game 3 against Mongolia, the Thais amazingly regroup, get their game together and avoid last place by winning 4-2. Welcome to the ranks of international ice hockey-playing countries — now take your place in the “C” pool.
Back in Chiang Mai, I ask Story what Howie Meeker would think of the Thais.
“Oh, he wouldn’t have the patience to deal with them at all,” he laughs. “He’d be slamming his stick down on the ice every five minutes and shouting at them. But then … he’s from a different generation, isn’t he?”
Daniel Gawthrop lives in Bangkok and plays hockey on Sundays with the Flying Farang.