One of the first ice hockey games to take place in Hong Kong ended rather theatrically. In 1984, Swire Group opened a tiny rink at Taikoo Shing’s Cityplaza, and while it was an improvement on the old Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park ice rink, which had only metal handrails for boards, the new sheet of ice presented another challenge – it was right in the middle of a shopping mall.
During a heated game, an errant slapshot flew over the boards and smashed the window of a clothing store, sending screaming customers ducking for cover.
“I can neither confirm nor deny that it was me,” says Gary Lawrence, with a chuckle. “I think it was tipped, so I can’t take credit, or the blame for it.”
Lawrence, a former player with Yale University’s National Collegiate Athletic Association team, who was in town from New York on a business trip, soon moved to Hong Kong to help plant the seeds of ice hockey in the city, and make it a staple sport of the region. With an ample supply of expats from the game’s motherland of Canada and other ice hockey-playing nations, sufficient government coffers, and newer, better rinks being built, the sport seemed primed and ready to take off, just like Lawrence’s slapshot.
But it did not.
More than 35 years later, Keith Tsang Hing-yui, one of many promising young local players, quit Hong Kong’s national junior ice hockey team to take up lacrosse. He had not fallen out of love with the game, felt no pressure from his family, and it was not a matter of being able to afford the sometimes expensive equipment, which can run to thousands of dollars.
Players such as Tsang quitting the game has hung over the city’s ice hockey scene since he first laced up a pair of Bauer skates while still in junior school. And his reason for quitting, like so many other players, tells the story of a sport that had every opportunity to flourish but now finds itself as fragmented, disjointed and broken as ever – essentially, at war with itself. But why?
Soon after Beijing was named host of the 2022 Winter Olympics, in 2015, China set about pumping millions of dollars into winter sports infrastructure. One of the key investments was ice hockey rinks, with China aiming to have 800 built by this February in a bid to use the Olympics as a way to seed the game at home.
North America’s National Hockey League (NHL) in turn set its sights on China, hosting its first game in Shanghai in 2017, and then another in Shenzhen in 2019, and will send its players to Beijing in 2022.
Ice hockey fever has hit the wider region too, with South Korea’s men’s national team now one of the top 20 in the world while Japanese-Canadian NHL star Nick Suzuki helped lead his Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Final this past season.
Dozens of North American prospects with Asian heritage are now standing at the threshold of the NHL, the sixth biggest sporting league in the world in terms of revenue, as the game begins to favour smaller, faster and more agile players such as Japanese-American Kailer Yamamoto, who plays for the Edmonton Oilers, and, of course, Suzuki, in Montreal.
While the popularity of ice hockey rises in a number of emerging markets across the planet, it has stagnated in Hong Kong, and the men’s team sits 48th in International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) rankings. This despite Hong Kong welcoming two new rinks in the past year, in Discovery Bay and at The Lohas, with an estimated 1,000 players, young and old, male and female, recreational and competitive, now making use of the city’s five full-size rinks.
And yet, Hong Kong has been passed by a number of similarly smaller countries and territories over the years, including the United Arab Emirates, Taiwan, Turkmenistan and even North Korea.
Local players point to an alleged lack of leadership within the Hong Kong Ice Hockey Association (HKIHA) as the main culprit behind this lack of progress.
An ongoing spat between community leaders and the HKIHA came to a head recently as the founder of Hong Kong’s largest ice hockey group sent a letter to government officials asking for change within the sport’s governing body.
China Hockey Group’s Gregory Smyth, who oversees an organisation that encompasses the most players, coaches, leagues and teams in the city, raised “a number of serious and interrelated issues with the HKIHA” in regards to a lack of transparency and professionalism. Smyth asked the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) to help create an association that “leads with a strategic vision” and acts with “integrity and works with its members for the best of the sport”.
The LCSD responded to his letter, stating that it has “reminded the HKIHA to maintain [an] amicable relationship with their affiliated members and ice hockey associations. HKIHA has also been advised to offer their assistance to promote the sport of ice hockey. LCSD will continue to monitor the performance of HKIHA”.
Smyth, 53, a Canadian who has lived in Hong Kong and been part of the ice hockey scene since 1993, says this stock response is not enough, and that his “Time for Change Letter” is a culmination of years of frustration. He says he feels the HKIHA has hindered the game by taking an exclusive approach, an allegation supported by a number of key players past and present.
“There’s been no cooperation, they have no understanding of the game, there’s been no leadership from the association,” says Smyth. “They are hampering the development of ice hockey in Hong Kong.”
Smyth points to a YouTube video, since taken down, in which he contends HKIHA chairman Mike Kan Yeung-kit slandered him by comparing Smyth to former US president Donald Trump, and made a number of false accusations against him and the China Hockey Group (CHG).
“This is not appropriate behaviour for the sport’s highest official in Hong Kong,” Smyth wrote in his letter to the LCSD. “It reflects incredibly poorly on the HKIHA, LCSD, Hong Kong and the sport.”
In response, the HKIHA stated that it would not comment on “any footage released by any individual person through his own private platform; even if that person holds any capacity in our association”.
Smyth’s letter to the LCSD also questioned whether the HKIHA understands its role as a “government funded national sporting body” and detailed grievances such as a lack of transparency in corporate governance and the plight of parents of ice hockey players who worry their children’s development is suffering due to a lack of cohesion within the hockey environment.
For example: there are no concrete player development strategies and there is no clear plan for recruiting coaches and training referees, which has created a sense of “confusion” and “misrepresentation” when it comes to how the sport should move forward.
According to Smyth’s letter, Kan has a conflict of interests when it comes to team selection for the various national programmes because he operates his own “Gold Club” leagues, and the perception is that players must play there if they want to represent Hong Kong internationally, which has created a “culture of intimidation” in which players fear getting on the wrong side of either Kan or the HKIHA, regardless of their level of play on the ice.
The HKIHA told Post Magazine in a written response that it did not understand the question relating to “conflict of interest on our selections of athletes for competitions” and “if anyone can raise these problems with us, we would like to listen, but those persons must produce concrete facts about what they refer to as conflict of interest, or the association cannot follow it up”.
Post Magazine requested an interview with Kan, but was told that “he is not in Hong Kong at the moment”.
HKIHA general secretary Annie Kwan Yuen-yee says that the association denies all the allegations outlined in this article, but admitted “there is always room for improvement”.
Lawrence, who still lives and works in Hong Kong and is a co-founder of the CHG, along with Smyth, has taken a back seat when it comes to the game.
Years of frustration and a lack of progress have left many, like Lawrence, simply too worn down to continue fighting what seems like an uphill battle against the HKIHA.
Having been part of the Hong Kong Typhoons Ice Hockey organisation, the city’s first youth programme, launched in 1992, Lawrence says he has witnessed disturbing behaviour over the years that shows a pattern in the way the HKIHA operates.
He claims that parents were told their children would never play for the national team unless they played exclusively under the HKIHA programmes, an allegation repeated by a number of other sources quoted in this article, including Smyth, players, coaches and managers who have no official ties to the CHG.
The HKIHA denied this allegation, stating players “have to join our feeder programme for training before being selected to represent Hong Kong. There are no other requirements. But joining the feeder programme will only give the player priority and not a must. We have never asked any player to play for our league before they can represent Hong Kong. They are free to play for any of the clubs”.
The CHG runs the only elite-level men’s league in the city, the China Ice Hockey League (CIHL), a full-contact league featuring the best players that played out of Mega Ice in Kowloon Bay but has moved to the Discovery Bay rink.
The CHG has been trying in vain since 2014 to have the league officially recognised by the HKIHA as Hong Kong’s accredited International Ice Hockey Federation league, which would allow teams to play in the World Championships, but Smyth says he has yet to receive a response.
With the vast majority of Hong Kong’s best players playing outside the HKIHA structure, there is an imbalance when it comes to finding the best talent to play for the city at an international level.
Two players, one a member of the men’s national team who spoke on condition of anonymity, and Tsang, agreed with the statement that players are bullied into playing under Kan’s “Gold League” and backed the assessment that the HKIHA operates in an exclusive, exclusionary manner. When Tsang was asked by Post Magazine about his thoughts on how the HKIHA is run and why he decided to quit the game to play lacrosse instead, he said the sentiment was crystal clear across the city’s ice hockey scene.
“Honestly, everyone knows they are poorly run,” says Tsang, outlining that the HKIHA is not living up to its role as a national sporting association. “There is no development at all.”
Lawrence says this is a time when Hong Kong should be taking advantage of two new rinks, increased exposure for the game across Asia and more emphasis on the importance of physical activity for children in the city. But he says the opposite is happening: “There might have been a day when the sport was so insignificant here it didn’t matter, but the [Beijing Winter] Olympics are coming up and there are a lot more kids playing in China. And Hong Kong is going to get lost in the smoke if they don’t get more professionalism into their programmes.”
Grievances with the HKIHA run deep, touching every corner of the game, and dozens of people interviewed shared stories that paint a picture similar to that described in Smyth’s “Time for Change Letter”.
Keith Gee Kay Fong, CEO of Powerplay Sports & Entertainment, which runs the in-line league at Jordan YMCA, says the HKIHA does not represent the Hong Kong ice hockey community, and so clubs are left to their own devices when it comes to financing and promoting the game. He says this has been going on for years and is the reason the game has stagnated.
“It is ironic that several clubs have larger and a higher level of leagues and programmes despite the fact that the association has government funding,” says Fong, who has been deeply involved in the city’s hockey scene for more than two decades. “It’s just sad because ice hockey could be so much better in Hong Kong with the right leadership.”
According to the HKIHA’s website, the body is a “registered full member with the International Ice Hockey Federation and [an] associate member of [the] Sports Federation & Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, China”.
Established in 1980, it is responsible for the senior men’s national team, the women’s national team and the under-18 men’s team, however the vast majority of players play the game outside the HKIHA, something multiple sources say is not normal for a national sporting body.
Hong Kong has 10 registered ice hockey groups, but the two largest, comprising most of the players – the CHG and the Hong Kong Academy of Ice Hockey (HKAIH), along with the Hong Kong Amateur Hockey Club, which runs the Typhoons programme – do not have active HKIHA board representation. The HKIHA says it does not receive funding from the government with the intention of giving it to the clubs, and that anyone can run for election to the board.
Fong, like Lawrence and others, says attempts to get the government to help make the HKIHA more collaborative have fallen on deaf ears. Community members have tried to join the HKIHA in the hope of effecting change from within, but have been shut out from an organisation that is meant to be open, transparent and governed by rules and regulations that foster inclusivity.
Smyth’s letter was cc’d to the government’s Home Affairs Bureau, which oversees the LCSD, and to the Equal Opportunities Commission, asking for more clarity when it comes to the HKIHA board, voting membership and nominations, which are something of a mystery that the community feels should be clear, precise and easily explainable.
The HKIHA is set to hold an election next year, and Smyth said that the CHG “firmly believes that for ice hockey to succeed in Hong Kong, there must be changes to the HKIHA, namely through an open election in 2022 in order to be more representative of the sport in Hong Kong”.
The HKIHA responded: “We would like to reiterate that the association has been working directly with its members on a regular basis regarding our mission of promoting and developing ice hockey in Hong Kong; we also welcome all our members to provide valuable suggestions or recommendations on this mission for reference and discussions,” however, “we consider it inappropriate for us to disclose our discussions or disagreements with other persons or organisations regarding ice hockey development.”
Canadian John Laroche, who began playing ice hockey in Hong Kong in 1994 and took over the running of the Typhoons programme in 2006, sat on the board of the HKIHA from 2010 to 2014.
“The HKIHA has been poorly run since the 90s,” he says. “The problem is they have an autocratic leader who does things largely for his control of players and families, and does not open up to everybody to make the sport available.”
In 2013, Laroche announced the launch of a Hong Kong National Youth Programme at the Typhoons annual general meeting, and invited Kan to attend. Kan stated to attendees, the families of children who played, that they would be able to represent Hong Kong, but, “we weren’t a week out of that meeting when the HKIHA announced that only kids who played for Mike Kan’s programmes would be able to play and wear those [Hong Kong national team] jerseys, and all of our coaches who were supposed to coach those teams were no longer invited”.
This meant that all the hard work Laroche had done to give children the opportunity to play internationally was for naught. Stuart Winchester, who was at the Typhoons meeting with Laroche in 2013 and corroborates his recollection of events, says this should set alarm bells ringing at the LCSD.
“It makes you wonder how the Hong Kong government is vetting everybody,” says Winchester, who now runs Dbees Ice Hockey, a youth development organisation. “[The HKIHA] is receiving money from the government and if anyone is vetting them they could see quite clearly that the job is not being done very well.”
Canadian Bruce Hicks, who has been in Hong Kong since 1984 and runs his own investment management company, was also a co-founder of the Typhoons organisation. He remembers, in the early 2000s, bringing every ice hockey club together to form an organisation in the hope of lobbying the HKIHA and the Sports Federation & Olympic Committee to unify the sport.
“We went to them and said either change the leadership and get people who represent us, or support us directly,” says Hicks. “At that point we were the ones, almost entirely, who were promoting and growing the game.”
Hicks says the move backfired, the HKIHA retaliating by becoming even more isolated from the ice hockey community. Favouritism for Kan and his inner circle became the name of the game and teams were chosen for all the wrong reasons when it came to selecting national players.
“Because of a lack of leadership from the organisation that represents these thousands of people who play the sport, it’s become incredibly exclusive and a detriment,” he says.
Herbert Chow Siu-lung, who founded The Rink at Elements mall in West Kowloon in 2007, says the HKIHA approached him in the strangest of ways looking for ice time soon after he opened.
“I remember their approach was unconventional, them being the ice sports association, asking us to use the ice for free, and then we asked them what their programmes were like, but they were not willing to share their programmes with us.
“So I was just left with the impression that these people were using the name of the [HKIHA] to try to get free ice and not really share their vision in terms of how they wanted to develop ice hockey, so we didn’t pursue anything with them because we didn’t like the way we were approached.”
Chow says he had to ban an HKIHA coach from his rink because of his intimidating and bullying demeanour, stating that the person in question was the secretary of the HKIHA at the time, and a part-time coach at the rink.
“He used his position to block other ice hockey associations from joining the HKIHA and one of them was my client,” says Chow. “I told him I could not allow him to coach at my rink any more because of his unethical behaviour at the association.”
Multiple people interviewed agreed that a lack of ice surfaces in Hong Kong remains an issue, because it creates a squeeze for slots and keeps prices high. The HKIHA says this is its biggest issue, that it does not have a dedicated sheet of ice that is government-funded.
American Tom Barnes, who helped build Hong Kong’s ice hockey scene through local leagues and regional tournaments dating back to 1994, agrees. He started sports marketing company Asiasports in 1996 to operate such events. Barnes has since moved back to the US where he manages a number of leagues in St Louis, Missouri, which is known as a hockey hotbed.
“I think [Kan] needs help lobbying the local governments to build more facilities, similar to here in the US, where 75 per cent of the ice venues are operated through community Parks and Rec departments of local governments,” he says. “The greater St Louis metropolitan area is roughly three million people and we have 25 sheets of ice and nine roller hockey pads.”
Many organisations have tried to bring in outside coaching talent to help further the game in Hong Kong, but most do not stay for more than a few years. One of those was Simon Ferguson, who came from Canada in 2017 to work with the Typhoons and remained for two years. He says dealing with the HKIHA was frustrating.
“There was no real working with them,” says Ferguson, who is now a coach in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, another hockey hotbed. “We had to build our own shooting centre because we spent the first half of the year trying to utilise some of the assets they had, as they had a shooting centre and a skating treadmill, and we wanted to cooperate and work together. And they were not interested at all in having anyone run it.”
Ferguson adds that HKIHA representatives tried to pull children from the Typhoons organisation.
“The best way to describe it is that it’s very exclusive,” he says. “They would threaten kids who were six or eight years old that if they didn’t play on their teams they’d never play for the national team.”
Two members of Hong Kong’s ice hockey community with a direct link to the HKIHA, who spoke on condition of anonymity, say that part of this exclusive nature relates to a reluctance to let expatriates into the association’s power structure.
“There’s definitely an unwillingness to be open to foreign influence,” says one. “There was definitely this sense of, ‘This is ours and you mind your own business.’”
Mike Lam, raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, founded Kung Pow Kings Hockey in 2014, and has also coached in Luxembourg. He says the HKIHA does not behave like a normal national sporting body.
“At the end of the day, the association’s job is to bring together the best players around the region,” says Lam, an ice hockey coach since 2007. “And it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor – if you’re good, you should be on that team, and you should represent Hong Kong, and I don’t know if that is happening.”
The HKIHA says it does not want to be compared to other ice hockey associations because it is “very small” and attributes the fall in the international rankings to financial issues and a lack of funding from the government.
“This is mainly because our major Asian rivals such as Thailand [ranked 50th] and UAE [47th] are receiving support from their governments to provide full-time training for their players or bringing players from other countries while in Hong Kong we don’t have any full-time players.
“That’s why their rankings are improving. We have already done our best to promote the game in Hong Kong with 70 to 80 per cent of government subsidy going to the venue charges. Also, we lack sufficient players coming through the ranks.”
The HKIHA reports receiving HK$3 million (US$386,000) from the LCSD, stating that most of the money goes to fees for ice time. Representatives of local ice hockey groups say they have never received financial support for their programmes, which are designed to help grow the game and foster the next generation of talent, and that with extra funding they could help increase the ice time available to players of all ages.
Smyth points to the Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU) as being a model the HKIHA could follow. The sport is not inherent to Asian culture but the men’s and women’s programmes are ranked highly while drawing from a relatively small population.
Smyth notes the HKRU regularly recruits talented players and coaches from abroad, helping them find jobs in the city to supplement salaries, while dedicating resources to growing the game at the grass-roots level in an inclusive manner. All of the HKRU’s national team players also play in a premier domestic league run by the union, and many help coach various youth programmes with their respective clubs.
Hong Kong’s IIHF representative is Thomas Jefferson Wu, who was elected to the council in 2012 as vice-president and serves as honorary president of the HKIHA.
Wu, who also runs the HKAIH, says a representative team must be a grass-roots initiative: “Successful hockey nationals have sustainable development programmes for domestic participants, as opposed to only targeting imported talent. Simply put, a national team has to be made up of nationals from that country or region, a foundation of the Olympic charter.”
Wu was also sent a copy of Smyth’s letter by the CHG, but did not respond to a request for comment by Post Magazine.
Thirty-one players with Asian and South Asian roots have played in the NHL since Larry Kwong became the first person of Asian descent to take a shift in 1948. Nine played at least one game in the 2020-21 season, and the NHL estimates there are an additional 14 players of Asian descent “in the pipeline” who could make their debut in the next few years.
The game is diversifying rapidly, with the emergence of players with multicultural backgrounds from across North America and Europe, from where the league primarily draws its talent.
New spots across the world are beginning to emerge and produce what could be a future generation of Asian talent. China now has a professional team, Beijing-based Kunlun Red Star, which has had dozens of players of Asian heritage on its roster, mostly Chinese-Canadians.
Hong Kong’s most famous ice hockey coach is former New York Rangers captain Barry Beck. The 64-year-old Canadian came to the city in 2007 and says that, sadly, the situation remains similar today.
“Things haven’t changed much over 14 years,” says Beck, formerly head coach of the HKAIH, one of Wu’s development leagues. “We don’t get a lot of support from the government and they don’t really see us as a sport yet.”
Beck, who played 615 games in the NHL and coached the Hong Kong men’s national team for three years, says ice hockey in Hong Kong is not living up to its potential. One of his big goals when he came to the city was to get a Hongkonger into the NHL, something that is yet to happen.
“This all comes from leadership and it’s been a confusing and muddled picture since I’ve been here,” says Beck. “I just think that the [HKIHA] are the leaders of hockey in Hong Kong, and we are all members of the association, everyone who plays hockey in Hong Kong. Are we getting the right leadership to take hockey where we want to, and will we ever be able to do that here?”
Hong Kong finds itself at a crossroads when it comes to its local sports scene, the city’s team having grabbed an unprecedented six medals (one gold, two silvers and three bronze) at the Tokyo Olympics, which was followed by a pledge from Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor that the government will inject HK$1.1 billion into five areas to boost sports across the city.
This Olympic fever is likely to be doused come February and Beijing 2022. Hong Kong is not expected to win any medals and may send just two athletes in one discipline. This stands in contrast with a number of Asian sporting bodies – Japan, South Korea and, of course, China – that will all look to build on their impressive medal hauls at the last Winter Olympics, in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.
The head referee for the CIHL is Canadian Chris Ivany, who has been in Hong Kong since 2011 and who also runs hockey podcast Across the Pond, He says the sport’s official body in the city should be an accurate reflection of the community, however, he is not sure that is the case. Ivany says this needs to start at the top, and work its way down, rather than the other way around.
“There are a lot of great people within the various hockey organisations here doing amazing things to grow the sport,” says Ivany. “I believe that bringing the leaders of these different organisations together and providing equal opportunity and representation on the HKIHA board of directors would go a long way in furthering the game.”