Date: December 22, 2016

Koivula’s connecting, people

By Risto Pakarinen World Junior 2017

After all, they both have come up through the Tampere junior system, Laine in Tappara, Koivula in Ilves. Also, they’re both big forwards – Laine is listed at 194 centimetres and 91 kg, Koivula at 190 cm and 100 kg – who like to score goals. And they’re about the same age. Laine turns 19 in April, Koivula next September.

It would be easy to make those comparisons but it’s also unnecessary because they’re two different players. However, it doesn’t mean it’s easy for Koivula to not wonder where he may be in a year or so.

“Maybe I do look at Laine and [Jesse] Puljujarvi and compare my career to theirs, but it’s also true that we’re different players at different stages in our careers. Having said that, it sometimes makes me a little desperate, being here in smaller circles… but at the same time, I love seeing them do as well as they are, and it gives me hope that someday I can be [in the NHL], too,” he told IIHF.com.

While Laine was voted Finnish league playoffs MVP and was named to the Finnish team for the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, Koivula was the Finnish junior league playoffs MVP, having scored 26 goals and 58 points in 49 regular seasons, and adding 5+7=12 points in seven playoffs games as his Ilves won the title. Koivula scored the championship clinching goal with 20 seconds remaining in Game 2 of the best-of-three series.

This season, he’s taken the step from the junior team to the Ilves men’s team and hasn’t looked out of place. He’s played all 29 games before the U20 camp, averaging a little over 15 minutes per game, and has six goals and 16 points, third on the team. Koivula is on pace to score 27 points in 50 games which is line with what some of the recent top rookies have accomplished in the Finnish league.

The 2016 Rookie of the Year, Laine, scored 33 points in 48 games, finishing 37th in the league. The 2015 winner, defenceman Otso Rantakari scored 29 points in 56 games, the 2013 rookie of the year, Artturi Lehkonen, collected 30 points in 45 games, and the 2012 top newcomer, Teuvo Teravainen, 18 points in 40 games. (In 2014, the rookie was goaltender Juuse Saros).

All three forwards in the above list are now in the NHL and that’s where Koivula, the New York Islanders’ fourth-round pick from 2016, has set his goal as well. And while he may sometimes get discouraged, he knows he’s heading in the right direction.

“I’m pleased with the first half of the season. After all, it’s my first season in the top Finnish league and while I have high expectations for myself, it’s good to be realistic, too. It’d too much to expect me to score goals or points in every game so I have to learn to play consistently well in other ways as well,” he says.

It may be unrealistic to expect him to score at a point-per-game pace in the top Finnish league, but it’s not unexpected that that’s where his mind is set. That’s exactly what he’s done in the juniors.

“Scoring is what has taken me here and made me a pro player now, but the Finnish league is a tough league. What has surprised me the most is to see how hard it is to win games. In the juniors, we could play poorly for most of the game, then score a couple of goals and win,” he says.

That won’t do in the pro league, and it’s definitely not going to be good enough at the World Juniors.

“Everything goes up a notch, and while you can mentally prepare for it, and get ready to skate faster, shoot faster, and pass faster, that there’s less time to do anything, the adaptation starts when we hit the ice there,” he says.

Finland enters the tournament as reigning champions, and Koivula thinks that gives the team a boost.

“I hope it gives us positive energy. I don’t think we feel any pressure, anyway, it’s a new team, but of course it’s exciting to try to win another championship,” he says.

The native of Nokia has his feet on the ground even if he still allows himself to dream. And if he needs proof of how quickly things can change, all he has to do is look back at how his own life has changed in a year.

Last year, on a regular Tuesday, Koivula got up at six, and started his moped car at 6.30 to drive it to the rink for practice and then to his high school. Today, he has a real car, and the Ilves Finnish league team practises later so he can sleep until 8 am. And, he’s put school on hold for the time being.

“I’m still registered, and haven’t dropped out, but I wanted to focus on hockey this year. It’s a big year for me,” he says.

Searching for next Yao Ming for hockey a daunting task as NHL eyes China’s untapped market

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By Michael Traikos –  Postmedia Network

The search for the Yao Ming of hockey began in Beijing, on makeshift rinks tucked in the basement of a shopping mall or on the sectioned-off corners of a speed skating oval. It’s as unlikely an origin story as you will ever hear, with players learning to toe-drag on figure skates while wearing equipment inside out.

AnDong (Misha) Song learned to skate when he was six years old after doctors told him that breathing in cold air would cure his respiratory problems. Rudi Ying discovered hockey on shopping trips with his mom, deciding from an early age that the strange sport was far better than being dragged from store to store.

At the time, neither player knew a slew foot from a spin-o-rama. Growing up in Beijing, where 10 years ago there were maybe two actual rinks and no NHL games on TV, they didn’t even know how to put on the strange-looking equipment, often wearing shin pads over their hockey socks because they thought the socks were meant to keep their legs warm.

“We’ve always done that,” said Song. “When we started, the whole hockey community would be around 50 kids or so. We were six and there would be kids we were playing against who were 12, but we all played together because there was no one else. Looking back, we never thought we’d be here today.”

From those humble beginnings have grown some pretty good hockey players and some grand — if not unrealistic — expectations.

In 2015, 19-year-old Song became the first Chinese-born player drafted into the NHL when the New York Islanders selected him in the sixth round (172nd overall). Ying, who is 18 years old, is playing for the Kunlun Red Star, China’s only pro team in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League.

The hope is that they will do for hockey what Yao Ming did for basketball and spur a generation of fans and players to pick up and follow the sport. At the very least, with Beijing hosting the 2022 winter Olympics — Song was part of the Olympic bid presentation and Ying said, “I’ll be at the peak of my career by then” — they are expected to be global ambassadors for a country the NHL is eyeing closely.

Beginning as early as next season, the NHL is planning on playing exhibition games in Beijing. From the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks to the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings, more and more teams are viewing China as an untapped market for fans, merchandise and even fees for broadcast rights.

“A strong China is a strong Asia,” said International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel. “We need Chinese players and Asian players. The potential is huge. We have two, three thousand registered players in China where the population is (over one) billion. That’s nothing.

“All we need is a Yao Ming for hockey and then — bingo!”

* * *

The chances of China finding a Yao Ming who can skate and shoot the puck is a bit of a long shot. After all, Yao was a one-off, a 7-foot-6 giant who was the product of two very tall and very talented professional basketball players. Biographer Brook Larmer said the marriage was arranged by the Chinese government in hopes of turning “a boy with an ideal genetic makeup into the best basketball player in the world.”

It sounds like science fiction, but Yao’s effect on the NBA and basketball in China has been very real. The Hall of Fame centre, who was drafted first overall in 2002 and retired nine years later, might not be the sole reason why more than 300 million Chinese play the sport today. But he is a big reason for the NBA’s increased presence in China, which includes everything from broadcasting 400 or so regular-season games and playing exhibition matches against club teams in Shanghai and Beijing for the past 10 years to holding NBA development schools throughout the country.

Since the arrival of Yao in 2002, China has sent four other players to the NBA, not including Zhou Qi and Wang Zhelin, who were both selected in the second round of this year’s draft. Yet, in some ways, the Yao Ming model could be the worst thing to happen to hockey in China.

“The thing is because Yao Ming was so wildly successful as a player and with how the NBA used him to get the Chinese market, I think the business people there believe that’s the way to do it,” said BioSteel sports nutrition drink CEO John Celenza, who launched a distribution deal with China last summer. “But I think instead of them trying to find their Yao Ming, they should be developing the infrastructure. I think they would be far better off putting an infrastructure in place and have a generation come up, kind of like we’re seeing here in Canada with basketball, and get a lot of professionals rather than just one Yao Ming.”

With a strong economy and a population that is greater than 1.36 billion, there is no reason why China cannot develop a respectable hockey program. They just have to want to do it. After all, there is a track record for this.

China’s so-called “medal factory,” in which kids as young as six are plucked out of kindergarten and placed into elite sports schools where they are groomed to become future Olympic champions, was responsible for the country’s impressive showing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where a record-breaking 51 gold medals were won — up from 32 in 2004.

According to several Canadian-based coaches, the government is intent on doing the same with winter sports in Beijing.

“I remember four years ago sitting in this beautiful country club and being kind of taken around by a Chinese woman who said she was part of the Beijing Olympic Committee Hockey,” said director of development Neil Doctorow, who recruits hockey players from China to play in the Blyth Hockey Academy in Toronto. “The conversation we had was exclusively, ‘Our government wants a good hockey program and we don’t want to be embarrassed at the Olympics. How do we go about doing that?’

“They’re trying to accelerate this into something from nothing really quickly,”

In the past 10 years, Beijing has gone from having two rinks to close to a dozen. At the same time, participation in the junior-hockey league has grown from two teams in 2008 to more than 100 this season.

But according to the IIHF, China has only 1,100 registered hockey players, less than half of which are men. While the women are ranked 16th in the world, the men are 37th, lagging behind warm-climate countries such as Mexico and Australia.

“You could easily make the case that it’s the worst hockey country in the world based on how big the country is and how low the ranking is,” said Montreal-born Mark Simon, who has been coaching and promoting hockey in China for the past 10 years.

A strong showing at the 2022 Olympics could change that. But China has never qualified for the Olympics in men’s hockey, and even as the host country is not guaranteed a spot. With time ticking down, finding someone who can do for hockey what Yao Ming did for basketball is essential — even if it means manufacturing him.

“In China, the media talks about me a lot and makes me out to be an ambassador for hockey,” said Ying, who has the added benefit of being the son of Da Ying, a well-known television actor and director who some call China’s Spike Lee.

“But people forget I’m only 18 and this is a learning experience. I wasn’t expecting to play a lot, let alone every game, but a lot of fans don’t realize that. They expect me to be a star, but that’s pretty unrealistic.”

“There’s definitely a lot of pressure back home,” said Song, who had a camera crew from China following him in the three years leading up to the draft, even though he was taken in the second-last round. “The pressure is always there. I can feel it, but I try to use it as motivation to work harder and get better.”

Chances are that Song will not be hockey’s Yao Ming. At his current rate of development — no points in 18 games this season for the USHL’s Madison Capitols — the 6-foot-1, 179-pound defenceman isn’t even considered an NHL prospect. The same is true of Ying, who is only playing for the KHL’s Chinese team, where he is averaging less than three minutes per game, to meet their quota of homegrown players.

“You can’t fool the NHL and you can’t fool the KHL,” said Simon. “I talked to a prep school coach where Misha came from and he said there were 50 kids who could have been drafted ahead of him. I love Rudi and it’s not his fault that he’s there, but he should be playing under-20 hockey somewhere and developing. But it’s cool to be in the KHL and it’s cool to be on the posters.”

Some suggest the problem isn’t building arenas or introducing the game to young players, it’s what comes after that China is dropping the ball. It’s a software problem rather than a hardware problem. China lacks competent coaches and the infrastructure to properly develop kids as they near adulthood.

“A kid that wants to do anything in hockey can’t be in China past age 14,” said Simon. “The hockey literally dies at age 14. If you’re really good, you leave. And if you’re not that good, you quit. If you look at that number of 3,000 kids who are playing hockey in China, there’s probably only 20 who are 14 or older.”

Song left China when he was 10 years old, spending five years in Oakville, Ont., where his younger brother now plays minor-midget triple-A, before moving to the United States. Ying, who played on the same Chinese club team as Song, came to Chicago when he was 10 and played a year in Toronto.

“In Under-13, we had a lot of kids playing hockey in China, but the next year it’s next-to-none because that’s when school starts to get more academically challenging,” Ying said. “It got to the point where we swept every team in the country.”

* * *

Hockey’s Yao Ming might not be in China after all. He might already be in Canada.

Noah Li, who is five years younger than Song, is from Beijing, but he didn’t get his start playing in a mall or on a speed-skating rink. He played hockey from Day 1 on an actual hockey rink and was coached by Canadians living abroad.

After getting recruited to play in Canada by the founder of PEAC Hockey Academy, where Connor McDavid went to school, the 14-year-old is playing two years above his age group at Toronto’s Blyth Academy and hopes one day to play in the OHL or NCAA.

“They’re like, ‘Bro, you’re from China? How many Chinese players are in the NHL?’” Li said of his teammates. “They didn’t expect me to play this good — or be this tall.”

Simon said Li “could be the best Chinese hockey player ever — not that it’s that tall of a mountain to climb.”

“I don’t really expect to be Sidney Crosby or Wayne Gretzky,” said Li, “but I expect to play in the NHL and, after that, coach other Chinese kids how to play hockey with the education I’ve got here.”

According to Doctorow, who this month had two teens from Qingdao visit Blyth Academy on a recruiting trip, “there are 12 to 20 kids (from China) playing in the GTHL (in Toronto)” — and more are on their way.

By the 2022 Olympics, when Li would be 20 years old, China could have an actual hockey team. By then, the search for hockey’s Yao Ming might be complete.

“So many rinks will be built after the 2022 Olympics and so many good players are going to be drafted into the NHL, in the first round and in the second, high draft picks,” predicted Longmou Li, a hockey colour commentator for CCTV in China. “Right now, we have so many kids playing triple-A in the GTHL and North America. Maybe Auston Matthews is among those kids.”

Ice hockey teen duo hopes to do Singapore proud in 2017

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By

At the tender age of four, his mother took him to an ice rink in Singapore to dabble in figure skating.

After watching ice hockey players who also happened to be there, Singapore-born Richard O’Brien, who has American parentage, instead chose to master the stick and puck on ice.

Fast forward to 2016, and the 18-year-old is now a member of the national squad, training together with players who are mostly 10 years his senior.

“I’ve been playing in the national team for two years now. A lot of my friends are surprised that I play ice hockey, especially in Singapore,” said the Catholic Junior College science student. 

Before he enlists for National Service after completing his A-Levels next year, O’Brien is hoping to help Team Singapore win a medal at the 2017 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, when the sport will make its debut appearance at the regional competition.

He said: “Next year will be quite tough to balance everything, since the SEA Games will be held right around when the prelim (exams) will be.

“Our training sessions are quite late at night, so I use most of the day to complete my school work and do my studying. It’s been okay so far.”

The elevation of ice hockey to a SEA Games event comes at a time when there is growing interest in the sport in Singapore, although most players are foreigners.

Drop by any ice hockey league game at JCube on Monday, Thursday and Sunday nights, and one would notice a majority of American and European expatriates playing the sport. But as O’Brien observed, more Singaporeans are beginning to take it up.

He said: “Currently, I would say that the sport caters to a lot of expats, but there’s been a much larger increase in the number of Singaporean players playing the sport from the time I started venturing into ice hockey.”

He added: “(Back then), there were very few Singaporeans playing and most were of mixed-parentage like I was, with parents who were from overseas and played ice hockey as a child. Now though, there are a lot more Singaporeans who are joining and taking up this sport.”

Having a diverse membership in the national team is an experience in itself for O’Brien, with players of various ages and backgrounds coming together to form the national team: “It’s a very lively locker room. There’s a lot of Singlish and Hokkien being spoken, which makes for an interesting mix.”

He added: “Initially when I joined, I felt like the little kid in the national squad, but I feel like I’ve earned my place in the team. I definitely still feel like one of the younger players, but I think I’ve earned the respect of my team, especially since I’ve been with the squad for two years now.”    

USING SPEED TO MAKE UP FOR LACK OF SIZE

Just like O’Brien, team-mate Ryan Tan is also preparing for his A-Levels. At 17, the Raffles Institution student is the youngest member of the ice hockey national team.

Although he does not possess O’Brien’s height, what Tan lacks in physicality, he makes up for with guile: “One of my assets is speed. Being light, I’m slightly faster but I also have a disadvantage when it comes to size and experience. That’s where we help each other out on the ice.”

“Being smaller may be a disadvantage, but it also means I can squeeze out of a situation more easily. Also, being aggressive isn’t just about physicality but it’s also a mental trait as well which makes me do well in international games,” he added.

Noting how ice hockey is an extremely fast-paced team sport, Tan said that it is not enough to be good at a single skill in order to be a useful member of the team: “The sport is very dynamic as you need a combination of attributes, and not just speed or size.”

NEW TALENT TO HELP DEVELOP THE SPORT

Developing new talent is essential for the growth of ice hockey in Singapore, according to Singapore Ice Hockey Association (SIHA) president Alphonsus Jude Joseph, and introducing younger players like O’Brien and Tan to the national set-up will help achieve that. 

Joseph, who also plays for the national side, said that both teens are key to the future of Team Singapore: “Both of them will be the main building blocks for the national squad. They’ve got a good 10 to 15 more years ahead of them, in terms of playing international games.

“(Having them in the squad) is all part of bringing in the next generation into the national team. It gives them the clearance to play in high-level competitions from young and be able to lead the (other) youth players once they grow older.”

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

Despite the physical and technical demands of the sport, O’Brien insists that ice hockey does not solely rely on the stamina and pace of its younger players, and appeals to a wide cross-section of people.

He said: “I wouldn’t say (ice hockey) suits younger or older players more. It’s just the kind of player you are – if you’re the kind that enjoys fast-paced action, then this is what will suit you. It’s also more about having the kind of stamina where you’ll have to make constant short bursts, like for example in a 400m runner. That’s probably the closest equivalent to the kind of stamina you’d want to have.”

SIHA’s head of coaching development, Kevin Tan, hopes the teen duo will inspire more youths to take up ice hockey in Singapore: “The current senior squad grew up playing together, and are now starting their own families and advancing in their respective careers outside the sport.”

He added that the sport is at a transitional phase of grooming players (like O’Brien and Tan) to take over from the present batch. “(Hopefully), they can be role models for our youth to pick up the sport, and someday represent Singapore on the international stage.”