The Unsung Hero

Posted by on Aug 18, 2017 in Campaigns | No Comments

He might not have represented Singapore on the hockey pitch, but Peter Martens’s contributions to the sport is one worth celebrating.

“Why don’t you come over to my place and we can have a chat about this story?” Peter Martens asked warmly.

“I’ve just gotten my hands on some rambutans and I can guarantee they’re the fattest and sweetest ones you’ll ever have.”

The first thing that strikes one about the spritely 82-year-old is his endearing humility and kindness, qualities that have made him one of St Joseph’s Institution’s (SJI) most revered hockey coaches and teachers. He is also the father of Melanie Martens, a 1993 SEA (Southeast Asian) Games gold medallist who was once considered the finest female hockey player in Asia.

Martens’s love affair with hockey started after World War II around 1948 when the sports secretary of SJI introduced the sport to the students as a means of keeping fit. Martens said that there was no hockey court during those times, just an open field that had previously been used to grow crops during the Japanese Occupation.

“Before training started, the students had to help with preparing the field by putting up the flags and goalpost nettings. We sometimes had to use engine oil to paint the lines on the field. Cars in the old days weren’t very environmentally friendly so the engine oil was really black. We later switched to using white chalk,” recalled Martens.

Peter Martens (second row, first from right) with the SJI hockey team that claimed the 1973 National Hockey Championship title Image source: Peter Martens

Hockey training usually started around 3.30pm for lower-secondary students, while older students began their session at 5pm.

As classes ended at 1pm, Martens had plenty of time to kill. He would sometimes attend cross-stitching classes organised by the school or play table tennis with his friends. For lunch, he either cycled back to his home on Arab Street for a home-cooked meal, or headed to the Waterloo Street hawker centre across the school to have his favourite mee rebus.

While gear such as school jerseys and hockey sticks were provided by the school, students had to buy their own footwear and jockstraps. Martens said he first started playing with a pair of Bata shoes before upgrading to a pair of Adidas football boots.

“Adidas was the rave then. But getting a pair would cost you between $12 and $15, which was a lot of money. The teachers would sponsor those who couldn’t afford a basic pair of boots. The rest of the team would chip in a little, too,” said Martens.

“All the boots back then were made entirely of leather and you had to nail the studs in yourself. Things used to be really primitive.”

Martens said that training always began with students gathering their hockey sticks in a heap. The teacher would then separate the sticks into two piles and this determined which teams the students were on.

A young Peter Martens at the old SJI campus Image source: Peter Martens

The first part of training involved jogging and practising passes, shots and stopping balls. Everyone looked forward to the second phase, said Martens, because they got to play against one another. The hockey master also regularly organised friendly matches with other schools.

When training ended, Martens and his friends would head to the sarabat stall at the Waterloo Street hawker centre to chit-chat over a cold drink till it got dark. They would occasionally quench their thirst with a syrup-filled ice ball from the roadside vendor located at the junction of Queen Street and Bras Basah Road.

“The ice ball only cost five cents back then. If you wanted the chin chow [grass jelly], it was another five cents. It was very cheap,” said Martens.

Despite the lack of proper facilities and a professional hockey coach, the students became so good at the sport that they went on to win numerous games against other schools. This victorious streak was pivotal in driving up the popularity of the sport at SJI, Martens recalled.

As a young student, Martens first started out as a centre half in SJI’s junior team before switching to goalkeeping four years later with the senior team. During his pre-university days at SJI, he played on the left wing.

Hockey aside, Martens was also an avid cricketer. Between the two sports, Martens had little time for his studies, and ended up failing his coursework at the University of Malaya in Singapore.

“I just wanted to play, and I guess I was a little immature for university. I didn’t have great guidance back then – my dad and elder brother had died during the war,” said Martens.

He later enrolled himself in the two-year certificate course for teachers, but ended up failing the teaching assessment. As a result, he was transferred to the normal course and was admitted to the second year of this three-year programme. According to Martens, those who graduated from the normal course usually earned less than their peers in the certificate course.

Looking back, Martens called these failures a blessing in disguise, saying that he would have taken a completely different path in life had he breezed through university or the certificate course.

“For starters, if I hadn’t failed in university, I wouldn’t have enrolled in the certificate course where I met my wife Maureen. If I hadn’t met Maureen, I wouldn’t have fathered Melanie, and Singapore would not have had this amazing hockey player,” laughed Martens.

“Hey, have you seen my daughter play hockey? She’s better than three-quarters of the men in Singapore! Go watch the 1993 SEA Games hockey final between Singapore and Malaysia. You’ll see what I mean!”

After graduating from the teaching course in the mid-1950s, Martens joined SJI as trainee teacher. The school, recognising his sporting achievements, tasked him to run a number of sports clubs, including soccer, athletics and badminton. He later attended several sports coaching courses, including one that was conducted by the late Singapore athletics legend Tan Eng Yoon.

Months ahead of the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Martens was asked to join the Singapore national hockey team’s training sessions. While most people in his position would’ve jumped at the opportunity, Martens politely declined.

“I knew I wasn’t good enough, that’s why I said no. I mean, if you look at the sort of players we had then, I was nothing,” said Martens.

Though he did not represent Singapore as a sportsman, Martens ended up contributing to the sports fraternity in another way. When the coaches of SJI’s hockey and cricket teams retired, Martens took over the reins of both teams, and had a hand in moulding many of Singapore’s finest sportsmen.

One of the first names that come to mind is Nantha Kumar, a boy whom Martens persuaded to join SJI from Whitley Secondary after discovering his immense potential. Kumar went on to become a regional hockey star in the late ’70s and early ’80s and was also part of the national squad that took home the gold medal in the 1973 SEAP (Southeast Asian Peninsular) Games.

True to his nature, Martens was modest about his part in Kumar’s success.

“Seriously, I didn’t really have to do much. Nantha Kumar was a brilliant player. Besides, my forte was really in training goalkeepers,” quipped Martens. “The goalkeepers I trained, they weren’t just shot-stoppers – they were thinkers who could read the game.”

One such goalkeeper, Martens recalled, was Christopher de Souza, who now serves as a Member of Parliament for the Holland-Bukit Timah Group Representation Constituency.

In a tribute to his former coach, de Souza wrote:

“Mr Martens was an exceptional coach. He had an amazing dedication to the sport and would pay for booking fees for the field and sports equipment so that the boys would have hockey sticks and safety gear to play the sport fully.

I have several clear memories of Mr Martens. One of them is of him umpiring inter-class hockey tournaments in SJI. Whenever he thought students had potential in the sport, he would encourage them to join the school hockey team. That was how I got involved. I stayed with hockey throughout SJI and played it for close to 20 years till I was 33. During inter-school matches, Mr Martens would always be there encouraging us at halftime and improving our game by providing insightful instructions and strategy.

He also encouraged us to play at different levels – combined schools, national juniors and at the national team level. I always felt very encouraged that Mr Martens supported me on that journey because I respected him and it was heartening, as a young hockey player, to receive his encouragement.

Even now when we meet, we talk about hockey and his passion for it is still so evident and alive. It would be true to say that I owe him so much because I learned so many life lessons and made so many friends on the hockey pitch – team-mates and opponents became friends after the game ended. It was Mr Martens who opened the door to that amazing journey and experience of being a competitive hockey player. I feel very humbled to say these words of a great mentor and coach who trained generations of hockey players.”

Martens’s coaching style, unsurprisingly, reflects his humble personality. Martens said that he always stressed to his players that they must never disrespect the opposition, and that the experience was far more important that the result.

“I told the boys that it didn’t matter how many goals they scored, how many dribbles they completed, or what the end result was – just go out there and enjoy the game. Also, we must never disparage our opponents after we win. Be respectful. If you want to celebrate, do so in the privacy of your own school,” said Martens.

“Another thing I always told them was that they weren’t allowed to cry on the field. It’s just a game, don’t make it such a big deal. If you want to cry, do it at home!” he laughed.

Written by: Alywin Chew

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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