When one thinks of the sports in which China excels, swimming, gymnastics or track and field usually come to mind. But ice hockey? While the sport may not have as big a following as soccer or basketball, there are an increasing number of youngsters who are learning about slap shots, hat tricks and teamwork.
Nestled in a newly built neighborhood on the northwest side of Beijing, high up on the fourth floor of a massive shopping complex, is one of this city's newest ice rinks. It is also the site of an ice hockey camp for young, talented players.
For several weeks last month, the Flying Tigers hosted a summer camp for these young players. Most were from Beijing, but some came from as far away as Hong Kong and the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.
“Initially coming to China where hockey isn't their main focus, I was very impressed with the skill level of the kids right from the 04-05s, right up to the big kids," said Kevin Masters, one of several coaches flown in from Canada. "The specifics of the skating and the individual type skills are absolutely comparable to what we see back home in Canada.”
And where there is ice hockey - a sport that requires a lot of time and money - there are always ice hockey parents cheering their kids on and giving pointers.
“When my son started playing ice hockey, we had just seen the movie Transformers and he thought goalies look like Transformers with all of their pads on and because of that it was his favorite position,” said Zhou Jianwei, whose eight-year-old son is a goalie.
Zhou says that in China, where many families have only one child, his son is learning more than just a sport.
“Many kids [in China] lack a sense of teamwork and what it means to work hard for what they want to get because their parents have taken care of everything for them. But since he's started playing ice hockey, he's slowly begun to understand how to work together with his teammates to accomplish a goal and gained a sense of how [in society] people need to help one another to get things done,” Zhou said.
China's colder northeast provinces are largely considered the home of ice hockey in the country. And, a large majority of the players on China's national ice hockey team grew up there.
New ice rinks
Now, with new rinks in Beijing, that is starting to change. Local hockey organizers note that the number of U16 or 16 year-old ice hockey players in Beijing is likely to surpass the number of players in the northeast in the next season or two.
The reasons, they say, are because more families in Beijing can afford ice hockey, which is an expensive sport, and because the northeast is opening up to other sports, which is taking players away from the ice.
Cao Zhennan says her father played hockey while growing up in the northeast and helped to get her son interested. She says the lessons her son learns from ice hockey far outweigh any future prospect of making the national team or playing more competitively.
“Ice hockey is a fast and physical sport, it's a really a fun sport," Cao said. "On top of that, he's a boy and we got into the sport hoping it would help him become more courageous. It (ice hockey) also gets more interesting as the kids learn how to work together and make a lot of new friends.”
Charlie, an 11-year-old, who plays right wing, says his friend Abiyasi got him interested in the sport a year-and-a-half ago. Charlie says the sport has other benefits besides keeping him away from computer games.
“I think it's fun. It's good for my health and it's not boring!” Charlie said.
Mark Simon, vice president and head coach of the Beijing Imperial Guard Hockey Club, one of several teams in the Beijing Junior Hockey League, says team rosters have been growing in recent years.
“A group of us, our club and a few others started a league in 2008 and 2009 with four teams, which included about 50-60 players," Simon said. "Now, last season in 10-11, we had about 25 teams, so about 300 players, 300-350.”
Simon, an ex-banker from Montreal who started playing ice hockey at the age of five, says he left his gear in Canada when he first came to China. Several years later, he works for a company that builds rinks in Asia.
He says that as far as Asian cities go, Beijing is quite spoiled.
“To have four full ice sheets is quite rare," noted Simon. "And that is one of the reasons ice hockey is growing here a lot more quickly than in places like Hong Kong. Hong Kong has got a huge hockey following, a lot of kids playing, but they are very limited by the number of ice surfaces they have.”
Just getting started
Lane Moore, another coach who is helping out at the Flying Tigers camp, says ice hockey is just getting started in Beijing.
“With their development of new rinks, new ice surfaces, the numbers in Beijing are going through the roof and I am hearing in Shanghai it is the same way and I just think the potential for ice hockey in China is going to keep going,” Moore said.
Both he and Kevin Masters say they never expected to be running an ice hockey camp in China, and certainly not on the fourth floor of a shopping mall. But they say the publicity from curious shoppers helps build interest in a sport that they say is quickly on its way from a novelty to the mainstream.