By Ed Willes – The Province
Misha Song, a true hockey pioneer in China, can look back over his career and understand he’s had a front-row seat for the game’s remarkable growth in his country.
Now, there are hockey-specific facilities sprouting up all over China. Then, the only ice available to Song was the straightaway of a short-track rink in his native Beijing.
Now, with the Beijing Winter Olympics set for 2022, the Chinese government, the NHL and the IIHF are all pouring money into the sport. Then, the game was little known outside the city of Harbin in China’s remote northeast corner.
Now, Chinese nationals are playing in elite developmental streams in Canada and the U.S, and it only seems a matter of time before one of them cracks an NHL lineup. Then, Song was the first Chinese-born player to be drafted by an NHL team when he was selected by the New York Islanders in the sixth round, 172nd overall, in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
Yes, with a perspective that can only be gained through experience, Song has witnessed something special between hockey and his country, something which will reshape the sport and elevate it to a new place in China. Where it all goes from here is the next question, but the defenceman with the USHL’s Madison Capitals is excited about what will come next.
And he should be. Misha Song is 20 and just 12 months away from entering his freshman year at Cornell University.
“When I started almost 15 years ago, hockey was an unknown sport in many parts of China,” Song writes in an email.
“Now there are more rinks being built, more people playing, and more resources dedicated toward hockey.
“The changes have a profound effect on me. When I started, barely any of these resources were available. It is amazing to see more people welcome hockey into their lives.”
But is there a permanent place for the game in the Chinese heart? The larger hockey world is about to find out.
This week, the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings meet for a pair of exhibition games in Shanghai and Beijing in what’s being advertised as a watershed moment for the sport. These games, the first live action for an NHL team in the Asian giant, represent a significant development for the NHL and a chance to plant its flag in a country of 1.4 billion.
But it’s also just one frame in a story that’s moving a million miles an hour. The intent of this piece is to provide some background on the game’s history and development in The Red Dragon, which is tricky because hockey’s history in China is what happened yesterday.
Yes, the game has a tradition in China, and there is a backstory to tell. But that history has been overtaken by the powerful forces which now promise to take hockey to some exhilarating new places.
“If I’m being reasonable about it, we’re not there yet,” said David Proper, the NHL’s executive vice-president of media and international strategies and the league’s point man on the China games.
“We’re not going to grow hockey in two games. What we’re trying to do is get people into the doors to watch live hockey.
“It’s definitely at the embryonic stages. But the fact is things can move very quickly in China if you have the support of government and business.”
And hockey is moving quickly now, even if it’s unclear where it’s going.
For its first 100 years, hockey in China was almost the exclusive domain of the northeast and its two biggest cities: Harbin and Qiqhar. Going back 1,500 years or so, the Daur people of that region had played a game called beikou, which resembled field hockey. But puck came to Harbin and the surrounding area via Russia — Siberia is located just to the north — around 1915 and set down some deep roots.
“It was charming to find a northern place that had a kinship with the game, and they do love the game,” says Dave Bidini, a writer/musician/journalist who first traveled to Harbin to play hockey in 1999.
“But it’s detached from the rest of the country, and travel in China wasn’t easy 20, 30 years ago. The game never spread. Consequently, it didn’t grow.”
Still, it found a home. Harbin first hosted a tournament for teams from the north in the 1930s, which led to the formation of a Chinese league in the mid-50s. In ’57 China joined the IIHF. By then, the Chinese national team had toured in the Eastern bloc and teams from Czechoslovakia and Japan had toured in China.
Anatoli Tarasov, considered the father of modern Russian hockey, visited the region frequently to set up camps and training programs. He was still traveling to Harbin in the early ‘80s.
Hockey, in fact, was enjoying steady growth and caught the attention of the Communist Party in the late 1950s, which loved the spirit of the game. Alas, the Cultural Revolution wiped out the infrastructure of most sports in the ‘60s and the game was largely abandoned until the early ‘70s.
It started to come back in 1972 when China went to the C pool of the world championships and finished fifth. By then, the first indoor rink was being built in Beijing. China would go on to win four straight gold medals at the Asian Games in the 1980s, but while there was isolated growth, the sport remained largely in the northeast.
As it happens, the 1980s was also the period China began opening its borders to the larger world under Deng Xiaoping who, among other things, opined: “Poverty is not socialism. To be rich is glorious.” It took hockey a while to catch the new spirit which was transformed the country, but in the 2004-05 season, both Harbin and Qiqhar joined the nascent Asian League and the game caught a spark.
For the next 10 years, China would be represented in the Asian League which drew former NHLers like Esa Tikkanen, Tyson Nash, Jamie McLennan and Claude Lemieux. In 2007-08, Harbin and Qiqhar consolidated into the China Sharks, which were owned and operated by the NHL’s San Jose Sharks for two years before the Chinese Hockey Association took over the franchise.
“It was a positive experience, but it was probably a couple of years ahead of its time,” says Sharks GM Doug Wilson.
Still, the Sharks wouldn’t be the last North American entity to invest in Chinese hockey. Last season, the Asian league operated without a Chinese franchise for the first time in 13 years as Kunlun Red Star, based in Beijing, joined the KHL. Kunlun is now coached by Mike Keenan and forms the basis of the national team program preparing for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
A similar model is being used for the women’s program, which operates two Chinese-based teams in the Canadian Women’s League out of Shenzhen. Digit Murphy, the 18-year coach at Brown who coached the CWHL’s Boston Blades, oversees the women’s national team.
It’s further expected a second China-based KHL team will be added next season and there are plans for a Chinese domestic league. New York Islanders owner Charles Wang, a champion of the game in China, has helped fund 28 rinks in China and the Islanders have partnered with the Beijing Hockey Association to sponsor a junior team which plays out of the Islanders practice facility. The Boston Bruins have also partnered with O.R.G., the packaging giant which is the presenting sponsor of the Canucks-Kings series.
The old rink at Harbin, meanwhile, has been replaced by a new facility, and the sports institute there offers a hockey-specific program designed to grow the sports’ administrative and coaching base.
Yes, you can get a degree in hockey in China.
Aaron Wilbur, the former coach of the Richmond Sockeyes, was coaching at UBC seven years ago when he was approached about an opportunity in China. By his own estimation, he’s since been back 30 times and now represents ProSmart, a digital education platform for sports which provides a coaching blueprint for hockey and soccer.
When Wilbur first started working in China, coaches wouldn’t allow players to drink water during practices for fear of stomach aches. Wilbur recalls one session where a coach lit up a cigarette on the ice.
Seven years later, he sees a completely different picture.
“It’s pretty cool,” he says. “I started with some kids when they were five. Now I’m writing letters to get them into prep schools (in the States).”
Wilbur has also done some work in arena management with the Chinese. A year ago, he was at Huaxi Live, the rink where the Canucks and Kings will meet in Beijing this week. Huaxi Live was formerly known as LeSports Centre, the Wukesong Arena before that, the MasterCard Centre before that and the Beijing Olympic Basketball Arena before that.
Did we mention things move quickly in China?
At any rate, Wilbur was informed plans were in place for a three-rink training centre to be built near the larger arena and it would be completed in September 2018.
It can’t possibly be ready by then, Wilbur opined.
Don’t worry, it will be ready, his Chinese hosts said.
“And I believe them,’ Wilbur says, adding, “There’s so much going on over there. The game is ready to blow up.”