Growing Canada’s game in Thailand

by Nick Liard | March 4, 2015


Sudbury native Zak Garofolo has opened a hockey academy in Thailand. PHOTO SUPPLIED

In a city of 14 million people, nearly 14,000 kilometres away from home, one Sudbury man is proving the game of hockey translates beyond borders.

Zak Garofolo grew up in Sudbury and played through the AAA ranks of the local hockey scene, and then in the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League for the Espanola Screaming Eagles.

Garofolo moved on from hockey and ended up becoming a teacher, leading him and his wife to Asia in 2007. They landed in Taiwan, China and eventually wound up in Bangkok, Thailand where the couple now lives with their daughter, Apsara.

But he still had an itch for the game, so Garofolo began playing in tournaments that took him across the continent.

“For me, hockey is meditation,” the 30-year-old said. “When I’m on the ice, I’m fully immersed in the game, I’m not thinking about what I have to do that day, or what I didn’t get done. All of my troubles cease to exist for those 60 minutes.”

He was approached a year and a half ago, while playing adult hockey, to use his knowledge of the game to help instill the same passion with the youth in Thailand.

“I think there’s something in our DNA that makes us want to play and promote hockey.”

- Zak Garofolo

“It’s Canadians that continue to promote the game,” he said. “I think there’s something in our DNA that makes us want to play and promote hockey.”

He and three others started the Thailand Ice Hockey Academy, which is made up of three divisions — U-8, U-11 and U-14. The goal was to make the sport affordable and fun for youth in the country.

“One of our goals has been to collect donated equipment so parents wouldn’t have to shell out several month’s worth of salary,” Garofolo said. “We now have about 30 sets of equipment that kids can use for free.”

With the equipment, Garofolo has also helped put hockey into the lives of students at the British Columbia International School of Bangkok. The school uses the Canadian curriculum and Canadian certified teachers, but about 95 per cent of the students are Thai.

“With the school program, we have 75 Thai kids playing hockey,” he said. “With the league, we have over 200 kids playing in the first-ever youth league in Thailand. We’re very proud of these two accomplishments.”

The students practice once a week as part of their schooling, and the academy runs practices twice a week.


Zak Garofolo is putting a lifetime of hockey experience to use, teaching children in Thailand about Canada’s favourite game. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Despite the early successes of the academy, it still has its challenges, and lots of them.

“We have only two professional-sized rinks in a city of 14 million people, and some of the worst traffic in the world, so it’s challenging to get kids to the rink on a regular basis,” Garofolo said.

Additionally, the academy is half Thai kids and half expatriate children, who were born in places like Canada, America, Russia and Finland. Language barriers are a challenge, but one that Garofolo said the kids have quickly overcome.

“Most of the expat kids don’t speak Thai, and most of the Thai kids don’t speak English, but it’s interesting to see how, despite the lack of verbal communication, they’re able to work together on the ice, compete and have fun together.”

There is also a difference in philosophy. Growing up in Canada, the ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup. Of course, that doesn’t come without practice, but it can’t be won without playing the game.

In Thailand, and in most Asian countries as Garofolo explained, the culture is to practice, practice, practice, and focus on individual workouts rather than team games.

“This has been a major philosophical barrier for us, and we’re trying to sway the Thai hockey community to embrace team practices and regular games as a part of the sport,” Garofolo said.

Garofolo and his fellow instructors are happy to face these challenges head on.

“I take great pride in being able to pass on the knowledge and skills I’ve acquired over the years, not just on the ice, but also off the ice, imparting character traits like teamwork, sportsmanship and leadership onto my students.”

Garofolo continues to build and teach, and hopes to eventually bring a Thai team to play in the Quebec International Peewee hockey tournament. This coming July, the Thailand Ice Hockey Academy is playing host to an international tournament, including teams from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. The tournament will be at the AA skill level and open to all age groups. He invites local teams to consider taking part.

Overall, Garofolo is teaching a passionate group of kids and has confidence in their ongoing development.

“Once we break down these barriers and overcome these challenges, I have no doubt that hockey will grow and we’ll see a Thai player in the NHL in the next 15 to 20 years.”


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