Players compete during an ice hockey test program at National Indoor Stadium in Beijing, April 2, 2021

By Sun Xiaochen – China Daily

Even with the national team’s Olympic prospects looking bleak, China’s ice hockey administrators remain committed to boosting the niche sport’s popularity beyond 2022.

Less than nine months out from the Beijing Winter Olympics, the priority for China’s men’s hockey team is merely to avoid blowout defeats against the sport’s powerhouses at the 12-team Games.

But in the wake of the team’s poor preparations, even that appears to be a long shot, with the squad severely hindered by stagnant player development and a lack of quality competition.

In a shocking decision revealed on Tuesday, China’s national team players will skip the upcoming national championship, which could have acted as an important tuneup for the Olympics, and instead remain at their base in Shenyang, Liaoning province, to continue a training camp which has already lasted 10 months.

The championship, which will take place from May 25-June 1 in Beijing’s Yanqing district, would usually see all of China’s top players in action for their respective provincial teams or clubs.

With no international warm-ups scheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the national team’s development, currently overseen by the General Administration of Sport of China, remains something of a mystery, with barely any details of its progress or plans released to the public.

In 2017, the Chinese Ice Hockey Association (CIHA) launched a talent recruitment process, aiming to draft foreign-born-mostly North America-based-players with Chinese heritage to bolster the Olympic program.

However, that appears not to have panned out as anticipated, with none of the targeted overseas players making it onto the national team’s training roster.

Having been granted special wild-card entries to the Olympics by the International Ice Hockey Federation, China has targeted an unlikely medal in the 10-team women’s competition, and is simply aiming not be embarrassed in the men’s tournament.

However, drawn with heavyweights the United States, Canada and Germany in Group A, the Chinese team, coached by former NHL player Curt Fraser, looks poised for heavy defeats at the Games.

Now the GASC, China’s central sports governing body, and the CIHA are looking beyond the Games by focusing on building a solid foundation for the future.

“The championship this year will see no national camp players involved,” Si Liang, deputy secretary-general of the CIHA, confirmed at a media conference on Tuesday to launch this year’s tournament.

“It’s up to the GASC to get the national team ready for the Olympics, while we are committed to growing the sport at the grassroots level and strengthening the base of talent development.”

With hockey gaining popularity among Chinese children, particularly from middle-class families, this year’s national championship sees a wider geographical spread of teams joining the sport’s traditionally strong northeastern provinces.

Squads from Macao, Shanghai, Chongqing and Beijing Sport University feature in this year’s nine-team tournament, bearing witness to rising participation rates across the country’s southern and western regions.

“It says a lot about hockey’s progress at grassroots level and it means that the game’s popularity has extended beyond the country’s climatic limits to reach a wider area,” said Si.

“Although we are not scouting players directly for the national team at this tournament this year, we will keep an eye on any outstanding performers for future national programs.”

With hockey officials seemingly resigned to the fact that little can now be done to significantly improve the national team for the home Olympics, which open on Feb 4 next year in Beijing, the CIHA has set its sights on building a stronger foundation by organizing a series of domestic league competitions, from junior to adult level, on both the men’s and women’s sides.

A domestic men’s club league will return in July from its pandemic-enforced shutdown, involving at least eight teams in a tournament format at three stops in Beijing and the Heilongjiang province cities of Qiqihar and Harbin, through October.

A similar women’s league will take place in Chengdu, Sichuan province and Harbin, and is expected to feature seven teams.

The CIHA will also work with the China Sport School Federation to run a six-leg junior hockey series from June 19-Oct 19 as a youth talent evaluation program.