China looks for Canadian help ahead of 2022 Beijing Olympics
|Thursday, August 4, 2016|
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 Lee 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."
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.