Hockey and Cambodia. Two words you typically don’t see together, but thanks to Sokreaksa Himm, all that is changing. Coming to serve in Cambodia as a Peace Corps volunteer I never thought I would have an opportunity to play any legitimate street hockey, but thanks to the wonders of Facebook I met a man who proved me wrong. Cambodian born Sokreaksa (who goes by Reaksa), developed an appreciation for the sport of hockey while living in Canada; it is after all Canada’s national pastime. Upon returning to his homeland of Cambodia he brought the sport to a part of the world it had never seen before. Before we learn about how hockey has become a hit in a small Southeast Asian community it is important to understand the tragic, yet inspirational story about the man behind it.
Cambodia has a very lengthy and complicated political history but it is most notorious for the events that occurred not even 40 years ago. In 1975 a regime known as the Khmer Rouge seized control of the country. Throughout the entire country families were forced from their homes in larger cities and marched in small jungle villages. Once there they were forced into manual labor. Any sort of complaining or perceived resistance result in death at the hands of Khmer Rouge soldiers, many of whom were young teenage boys. Nearly all highly educated people and supporters or employees of the previous government were marched out into the jungle to “go study” only to never be seen or heard from again. Disease and starvation were rampant and the country fell to ruins.
Caught in the middle of this was a young 13 year old boy named Reaksa. When the Khmer Rouge seized power he and his family, were forced out of their home in Siem Reap province and into the jungle. Once there in his new village he was forced into strenuous work for long hours, day after day after day all while living with the fear of not knowing if he or his family would make it to see the next day. Living in this nightmarish world would cause many people to give up, but Reaksa and his 13 other family members pushed on, relying on each other for strength until one day when the unimaginable happened.
On one fateful day the Khmer Rouge leader of Reaksa’s village ordered his family into the jungle “to study”. They were marched into the jungle until they reached their final destination, a freshly dug shallow grave. The family was lined up and one by one they were clubbed from behind with a garden hoe and pushed into the grave. Reaksa was clubbed, pushed into the grave and left for dead, only he was not. He had received some substantial trauma but not enough to kill him. He laid there still in the grave as the dead bodies of his family members were piled on top of him. After the soldiers had gone, he mustered up all the strength he could and pulled himself out from underneath the carnage and escaped to the jungle. He survived on his own in the jungle for a few months and eventually made his way into refugee camps in Thailand. Once there he was granted permission to move to Canada which is where he gained an interest in hockey.
After living in Canada for a number years he decided that he would return to his homeland of Cambodia to do mission work and do his part in fixing a broken country and also to eventually do something most of us could never imagine, confront and forgive the men who had killed his family so many years ago. Since returning to Cambodia Reaksa has had a hand in starting churches as well as community centers. At one such facility he decided to not make the typical soccer or basketball field, but rather to introduce the sport of hockey to Cambodia.
With the help of an international nonprofit organization and the NHLPA (National Hockey League Players Association) Reaksa was able to construct a playing surface and secure some equipment. The playing surface is made of concrete slabs with small boards surrounding it to keep the ball from rolling out and it is complete with real nets. The NHLPA has donated two sets of jerseys for the kids to as well as some pretty good looking sticks. Much to my chagrin (being a Capitals fan) they are Crosby sticks, but I’ll take what I can get.
I had been in contact with Reaksa for quite some time before I met him in person. I had actually first made contact with him before I even arrived in country and I had been looking forward to my opportunity to go meet him and see his rink for nearly a year. I was finally able to organize a group of fellow volunteers (and my brother who was visiting from America) to go challenge one of his teams to a game. Team Peace Corps would win easy I thought, what do Cambodians know about hockey? I was dead wrong; they smoked us, scoring goals left and right. It was just like a hockey game at home, complete with a little taunting and even some showy goal celebrations. Thankfully for this friendly game no one was keeping score, we were just all there to have fun.
After the game I talked with Reaksa for a bit. He told me about how people in the community enjoy playing hockey. They currently get together at least once a week and play for a few hours, rain or shine. He also gave me copies of the two books he has written. Before all this I had never heard his story, I just thought he was some guy who liked hockey, but thanks to our shared passion of the sport I am able to share his story of perseverance and generosity with the world. It’s funny how hockey can do things like that sometimes.
If you are interested in reading Sokreaksa Himm’s story for yourself, you can find his books on Amazon. The first is titled Tears of My Soul and the second is After the Heavy Rain