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!”
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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.”
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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.”