Players compete in the women’s ice hockey match between Guangdong and Sichuan at the National Winter Games in Hulun Buir, North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, on July 22, 2023.

By Lu Wenao – Global Times

The ice hockey competitions at the National Winter Games, though rarely held in the summer, concluded in early August in Hulun Buir, North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, as the spotlight surprisingly fell on teams from southern China.

Debutants Guangdong Province, whose women’s ice hockey lineup included several players affiliated with international teams such as national team captain Yu Baiwei, claimed their maiden national championship title as they won the seven-team competition.

“It allows more people to witness the charm of ice and snow in the summer. It’s our first experience participating in such an event during [the summer] season,” Yu told the Global Times. “I hope more people will watch our games, fall in love with ice hockey and even engage in the sport.”

Yu, who joined Shenzhen-based club Shenzhen Red Star in South China’s Guangdong Province in 2017, said Guangdong has been very supportive in developing winter sports, though the province is known for its warm climate.

“Guangdong has provided strong support for ice and snow sports, and these efforts have shown results in recent years,” Yu said. “I believe winning the National Winter Games will inspire more cities in southern China to develop ice and snow sports.”

In the men’s tournament, debutants Chongqing Municipality rounded off their ­maiden National Winter Games foray with a fourth-place finish in a nine-team race.

“They have demonstrated tenacity as the team even without winning a medal for Chongqing,” said Zhang Ge, deputy director of the Chongqing Winter Sports Administration. “The emergence of several outstanding young players is the greatest positive from our participation in this event.” 

Zhang mentioned that the team still requires more competitions to gain match fitness, saying, “We believe that with an increase in tournament participation, the team will see greater improvement.”

Olympic legacy

For many people from northern China, ice sports like skating are ­familiar, with locals having ­participated in them since childhood. Artificial ice technology spread in China thanks to Beijing winning the 2022 Winter Olympic bid, and has helped introduce children and teenagers winter sports in southern China.

The aforementioned two teams are just examples of ice hockey’s spread in southern China, as teams representing Sichuan and Anhui provinces, as well as Shanghai Municipality, areas in southern China where ice and snow is rarely seen, also qualified for the National Winter Games.

The southwestern province of Sichuan founded its ice hockey team in 2019, as the province aims to establish a squad that might widen the talent pool of the national team, said Duan Yuchuan, chief of Sichuan’s winter sports authority.

“Our short-term goal when establishing the team in 2019 was to participate in the National Winter Games and the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. This goal has since been achieved,” Duan told the Global Times. 

“The mid-term goal is to win medals at national multi-sport events, contributing more talent to the national teams. Now we have seen several talent being summoned to the national team training camp,” Duan said, before noting that their long-term goal is to have Sichuan-born athletes win gold medals for China at the Winter Olympics in the future.

“Athletes from Sichuan often possess advantages in flexibility, skill, endurance, and performance. These strengths can be fully harnessed in specialized development across segments such as ice and snow sports skills,” he added.

Sichuan’s hopes of being summoned to the national team are firmly pinned to Sichuan’s women’s goalie Wei Xueqin. Wei, now 22, made it to the national team training camp for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics but had to skip the quadrennial tournament due to a squad limit. 

Despite not making it to the national team, Wei continues to relentlessly strive for greatness. 

National team captain Yu, 35, said witnessing many young ice hockey players at the National Games assures her that the sport has a brighter future.

“I have seen emerging forces in ice hockey like the Sichuan team, represented by athletes crossing disciplines and fields. While they might lack some technical skills and experience, I can feel their youthful enthusiasm when competing against them,” Yu told the Global Times. 

“As long as they keep pushing forward and maintain the momentum, there’s significant potential for the future development of women’s ice hockey in China.”

The competition for younger ice hockey players will be held in February 2024, when Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region hosts the full-scale National Winter Games. It is considered an event in which China’s ice hockey younger squad depth will be tested before the 2026 Winter Olympics.

Preparing for championship

As Shenzhen, a metropolis in South China’s Guangdong Province, will host the Division I Group A women’s ice hockey world championship tournament from August 20 to 26, China has a chance to further expand ice hockey’s influence in the country.

Team China will host Denmark, Norway, Slovakia, Austria, and the Netherlands in the tournament, all aiming for gold and a chance for advancement in the sport’s international ranking.

Yu also underlines that actualizing quality performances is also vital to boost the sport’s popularity.

“It’s not just about achieving results, but also about playing the game well,” Yu said. 

“Showing the younger generations what kind of teamwork and technical moves can be displayed in ice hockey is vital for the sport. I hope we can deliver better performances and become an example for young players to learn from.”