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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.