Date: September 7, 2017

Break Away: NHL’s Entrance into China

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By Geoff Ng – City Weekend

China is not traditionally a hockey-playing nation, but with the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics fast approaching, the country’s eyes are turning quickly towards the sport. The national hockey program is now laying the groundwork for growth over the next decade, making this September’s exhibition match between the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks and the Los Angeles Kings a pivotal moment for the development of the sport in this country.

The country is currently ranked just 35th in the world rankings, up two spots from two years ago. Typically only the world’s top 12 nations are eligible for the Olympics. So to jump start the program ahead of 2022, China’s national team recently hosted open tryouts for players of Chinese descent in Toronto and Vancouver. Off the back of these open sessions, Vancouver native Brayden Jaw has signed on to join fellow Chinese-Canadian Zach Yuen to play in China this year as a member of the Kunlun Red Star, the Shanghai-based team in Russia’s cross-continental league, the KHL.

Jaw and Yuen, both in their mid-20s, will serve as a buffer generation to help seed talent in the age groups below them. Even if there is a large potential talent pool in China’s 1.6 billion population, it will take some work to tap into it. “It is a big market,” says Henrik Sedin, captain of the Vancouver Canucks. “But as you’ve seen in markets around North America, it’s tough to build the game. You have to grow it from a young age.”

Not surprisingly then, the national program has a lot of work ahead of itself. “Youth hockey has been developing quickly, especially for ages 10-15,” says 17-year-old local player Eric Zeng. “But the sad thing is that there are fewer and fewer players for our U18 teams. Many Chinese players start very young but they quit hockey for education.” Zeng has enrolled in Shanghai’s men’s league and is hoping to leverage his play and his academics into a scholarship for a Division II American college next fall.

Following the KHL’s lead, the NHL has been nibbling at the edges of China for a few years now, most recently making headlines when the New York Islanders (and its Chinese-American owner Charles Wang) made Andong Song the league’s first Chinese-born draft pick in 2015. Song came up in the Beijing International Ice Hockey League but moved to Canada at age 10 and is now working his way up the Islanders’ developmental system.

The Canucks and the Kings have also contributed, having hosted youth camps in Shanghai and Beijing for the last few years.The Canucks even went one step further this summer, inviting 20-year-old Beijing-born Simon Chen to their prospect development camp in Vancouver.

As for the match itself, the Kings and Canucks will square up with different goals in mind for the season. The Canucks sank to second-last place in the league last year and are building a base of young talent to take them forward, while the Kings have been one of the league’s best teams over the last decade, despite missing the playoffs last year. Nevertheless, with pride and big league jobs on the line, it’s sure to be a competitive game.

Alisauskas moving up

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By Henrik Manninen – IIHF.com

Following in the footsteps of his hometown hero, the KHL becomes the next step in the ascending career of Lithuanian blueliner Nerijus Alisauskas.

When Latvian KHL club Dinamo Riga got the new 2017/18 KHL season underway, it also coincided with the league’s sole Lithuanian representative making his debut at the big stage.

Following a successful off-season try-out, 26-year-old Alisauskas became a surprise late addition to the Dinamo Riga roster. A move which saw him become only the second Lithuanian to grace the KHL after Darius Kasparaitis, who played 26 regular season games for SKA St. Petersburg in 2008/09.

”I am happy to get the chance to play in the KHL and for me it doesn’t matter whether I am first or second. Kasparaitis was also my hero when growing up and I always wanted to achieve the same goals as him,” said Alisauskas, who got his first KHL point on board in his third game of the season with an assist in a 5-3 road win at Barys Astana, Dinamo Riga’s first victory of the season.

When Alisauskas picked up the game at the age of eight back home in the Central Lithuanian small town of Elektrenai, another one of its natives, Kasparaitis had long since left the nest and was at the peak of his powers across the Atlantic suiting up for Pittsburgh Penguins. Dainius Zubrus, the other Lithuanian with an NHL career, also hails from the town.

But while Kasparaitis and Zubrus had honed their skills during the Soviet Union times, Alisauskas was born in another era in the summer of 1991. Brought up in a once again independent Lithuania he was to have a more meandering road towards to the top.

After getting his baptism of fire at senior level in the Belarusian league with Latvian team Liepajas Metalurgs, Alisauskas found himself patrolling the blueline in Germany’s third tier for EV Fussen in 2013/14. Three years of solid displays in Kazakhstan’s top league ensued, before ahead of this season, Dinamo Riga’s head coach Sandis Ozolins came calling to offer Alisauskas an opportunity to shine at the next level.

A fine skater and equipped with a lethal one-timer, Alisauskas possesses qualities he hopes can be fully utilized in his new surroundings as Dinamo Riga aims to avenge for last year’s lacklustre overall display which saw them finish bottom of the pile in the Western Conference.

“I hope we will make the play-offs this season and on a personal level I hope I can grow as a player with as much ice time as possible,” said Alisauskas on a hectic season ahead where a lot will be at stake for both club and country.

In average he got 18:30 of ice time during seven KHL games. Only Canadian Karl Stollery and Latvian Guntis Galvins were on the ice more often among Dinamo Riga defencemen.

With Lithuania hosting the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Kaunas at the end of April next year, big things are in the pipeline for the southern-most Baltic country. Following four consecutive bronze medals at Division IB level under the guidance of head coach Bernd Haake, home advantage is hoped to give the team an extra edge as they aim to propel upwards.

“People are getting more interested in hockey so I am happy about it. As for our team, I believe Lithuania is already ready for the Division IA and this season will be the perfect time to get there,” said Alisauskas.

Alisauskas, who made his senior debut as an 18-year-old at the 2010 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I level, was among many key omissions from last season’s bronze-winning team at the Division IB in Belfast. While the Lithuanian federation hopes to entice big hitters such as Alisauskas, NHL veteran Dainius Zubrus, netminder Mantas Armalis and the Kumeliauskas brothers, Donatas and Tadas, to commit themselves for a gold medal push in Kaunas, perhaps the biggest name of them all is ready to once again step out in the limelight at the age of 45.

Kasparaitis aims at making his national team debut for Lithuania during the Baltic Challenge Cup played on home ice in Klaipeda this November while also offering a chance for Alisauskas to finally line up next to his role model.

“I’ve only practised together with him in the past, so now I can’t wait to play together with him,” said Alisauskas.