You want to play hockey, eh? China looks for Canadian help ahead of 2022 Beijing Games
Sport seen as great way to keep children active but is far from most popular adult pastime
It's Friday night in the suburbs of Beijing and the scene isn't that different from any Canadian city. Some 50 children, mostly under 12 years old, have come to play hockey. Canadian coach Mark Simon, at the board, is on the ice.
This is a fairly new sport for China. Few people know much about it and it's mostly upper middle class families who can afford the steep fees. In a city of about 25 million people, fewer than 2,500 play hockey.
Much like soccer in Canada, hockey has been seen as a great way for some parents to keep children active but it is far from the most popular adult pastime or professional sport.
Except now, with Beijing hosting the Winter Olympics in 2022, China is under pressure to make a respectable showing in a key sport. And just as it has for its arenas and even Zambonis, Chinese clubs and players are turning to Canada for help with coaching.
It's a modest start, but two teen players are heading to Canada for the kind of coaching — and the kind of exposure to team play — they can't get here. They've outgrown the Chinese system.
Seventeen-year-old Michael Wang will be training with the London Lakers, a Junior A hockey team in southwestern Ontario. "I'm pretty excited to be playing in Canada," says Michael, who comes from a working class Beijing family.
Noah Li is also heading to London, Ont., to play hockey. At 14, he'll be going to high school and training with an academy affiliated with the London Knights, another Junior A team. "Hockey just means so much to me," he says. "If I don't play, I feel empty inside."
Both players want to be pushed by playing with better teams. They only play a game every one or two weeks here and never at a very high level. "I think Canadian teams will play much better than I play in China," says Wang. "So I need to work harder, get more physical and do more skating."
And these two, Li, on the left, and Wang dream of coming back to play for China's national team. It could use the help. That team has never qualified to play in any Winter Olympics.
China's men's team — which many kids here say they'd love to join some day — is ranked 37th in the world, behind Mexico, Spain and Israel.
But there are individual Canadians investing a great deal of time working with Chinese kids. Mark Simon, on the left, has lived in China for a decade, coaching hockey for most of it. Originally from Montreal, he played until he was 19 and coached in Canada after that. He helped arrange for the two Chinese teens to play in Canada.
"This is one thing that Canada can do to really help China," he says. "We are six years out from the Beijing Olympics. If we could get young Chinese players into Canadian junior hockey training programs, they could learn in a hockey culture, a hockey environment, and then come back here and help their national team."
Of course, for many young players there is also the lure of playing professionally for the NHL. It would be unusual. Only one Chinese-born player has ever been drafted by the league: Andong Song, who was drafted by the New York Islanders in the NHL Entry Draft in 2015.
There have also been a couple of players of Chinese descent. Jerry He, on the left, plays Bantam hockey in Vancouver, where he now lives.
It will be a long time before hockey gains popularity in China. Fans here have been drawn to basketball through the popularity of Chinese star Yao Ming in the NBA. Soccer is also on the rise, cheered on by Chinese President Xi Jinping and financed by several of the country's richest men. But there are no Chinese hockey heroes and no billionaires backing the sport.
There are mostly just children, lining up to play for fun. And a handful of others with dreams on ice.
- A previous version of this story erroneously stated that there have been no Chinese-born players in the NHL. In fact, there has been one Chinese-born player in the league. Andong Song was drafted by the New York Islanders in the NHL Entry Draft in 2015.Aug 04, 2016 12:05 PM ET