Grounded airline captain Eric Koh plots new trajectory as hockey umpire

Captain Eric Koh has not touched the sidestick controller of his Airbus A320 jetliner for more than a year, but his career as a hockey umpire – to borrow a flying terminology – is on a “positive rate of climb”.

On Sunday, Melaka-born Koh, and England’s Dan Barstow, were the umpires for the men’s Junior World Cup final in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India.

Argentina stunned Germany 4-2 to win its second title.

That made Koh the first Malaysian, since Amarjit Singh in 2005, to officiate a Junior World Cup final. That was also the year Argentina won the trophy for the first time.

“I was called in as a replacement for the tournament 45 days ago,” said Koh, 35.

“I did not expect to be picked for the final as all I wanted to do was to give my best.

“I thought my involvement in international hockey was over for the year when I was not selected, but fate had other ideas. Once I got the news I was a replacement umpire, I rushed to make the necessary arrangements.

“I have been on no-pay leave since last year due to Covid-19, so at least I did not have to worry about applying for leave!”

Koh said it was an intense match, and he only soaked it all in after the final whistle.

“I treated it as just another game, even though it was my first major international final,” said Koh, who is also going to the 2023 men’s World Cup.

“I did not think about what was at stake. I blocked everything out until after the match, when I sat in the dressing room.

“That was when it hit me.”

Koh’s dream is to umpire at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“It has been a tough two years, financially, due to Covid-19. We do not earn much as umpires, but it has kept me sane.

“I am now basically a househusband since I cannot fly,” said the father of two girls.

“I never knew how tough it was to run a household. I have a greater appreciation for my mother, who had to handle four children!

“I will be at the 2023 World Cup, but like most people, the dream is the Olympics. That will not be easy, but then again, I do not think anyone expected me to be in the final.”

Koh said he owes his career to a school teacher at Melaka High School, who asked him to officiate a match when they could not find an umpire.

He grew to love the role and looked up to fellow Melakan Paramjit Singh, one of Malaysia’s best-known umpires.

“He was flying around the world, and that inspired me to be an umpire, as I wanted to travel the world. Ironically, while I managed to achieve that dream, I also became a pilot!” said Koh, who also admires Amarjit.

“Amarjit had a fantastic career as an umpire. He officiated at World Cups, the Olympics, and other major tournaments. I hope to follow in his footsteps.”

Separately, Amarjit said he was delighted for Koh.

“I have been following his progress, and we do keep in touch from time to time,” said Amarjit, who umpired at three Olympics (2000, 2004, 2008), and four World Cups (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010).

“It is good to see another Malaysian officiating in a major final.

“Hopefully, we can see more Malaysians making their mark on the world stage.”

* Picture courtesy of Eric Koh