Young Chinese find cool side of ice hockey

Source:Xinhua Published: 2016-6-3 17:52:49

When Cong Pei'en was in middle school, he had to rise in the middle of the night and travel three hours to an ice rink to indulge his passion for ice hockey.

Now a junior at the University of California, Berkeley, he returned home earlier this year to see his old school, Beijing 101 Middle School, finally had its own ice rink.

The cost of construction of the 100-square-meter rink, at 5,000 yuan (about 760 US dollars) a square meter, was covered with the help of former students and sponsorship from a Spanish company.

When National Hockey League (NHL) star Connor McDavid visited the school in May, a dozen young players had an opportunity to learn from one of the world's top players.

Cong was filled with envy: "When I was a child, it was difficult to find an ice rink and fellow players to play with."

His devotion to the sport began in 2003, when it was rarely mentioned in China despite its popularity in Europe and America.

"When I was a child, my biggest challenge in playing ice hockey was being able to get out of bed early enough," he recalls.

His mother Zhu Dan says at that time, the number of ice rinks in Beijing could be counted on the fingers of one hand, "and the best times were allocated to figure skating and speed skating, which had more aficionados."

"Ice hockey players could only book the time slots around 7 a.m. or 9 p.m., and it took three hours to get from our home in the west of the city to the ice rink in the east," she says.

At high school, Cong had to train with club teams and private schools. "At the beginning, when the foreign coach would ask Pei'en specifically if he understood, the other children would laugh," recalls Zhu.

Undeterred, Cong made rapid progress in English. He also organized an ice hockey association at school and taught his classmates to swing ice hockey sticks on the volleyball court.

Zhu, who had long planned for Cong to study in the United States, encouraged his interest in the sport.

"Hockey has taught him to be persistent and insistent, to face frustrations and defeats, and to work well in a team, all of which should be qualities a university values," she says.

Mark Simon, Cong's coach at that time, had come from Canada in 2006 and has coached in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other Chinese cities.

"More and more Chinese children have taken to ice hockey," Simon says. "Beijing has built more rinks in recent years. Many children join because their friends play."

Now coaching at a leading Beijing club, Simon observes one of the biggest differences between young Chinese and Canadian players is that many Chinese children have no siblings, so they don't know how to get along and work as well with others. Hockey, he says, cultivates a sense of team honor and a cooperative spirit.

On the Haotai Rink, in east Beijing, a minor league competition is about to begin. Parents are calling their offspring to change into their team uniforms. The parents unpack sports bags that are bigger than their children and dress them in thermal clothing, protective kit, shirts, skates and sticks.

Guan Sulun, 12, has played since he was 6 and is a key player of the Primary School Affiliated to Beihang University. His mother estimates that all up - including club training, going abroad to participate in tournaments and training camps - her son's sport costs her at least 100,000 yuan (about 15,200 US dollars) a year.

These parents are wealthy, and they invest time and money in their children's education. Some have studied abroad themselves so they know something about ice hockey, says Li Yunxuan, lead teacher at Zhongguancun No. 2 Primary School.

"The gradual rise of ice hockey among young people wouldn't be possible without rising living standards and changes in parents' concepts of education," says Li.

Ying Da, a well-known TV director agrees, saying modern Chinese parents value the comprehensive cultivation of physical and psychological qualities.

Ying was drawn in when his son Ying Rudi began playing, and he has dedicated himself to making the sport popular in China. Now he serves as honorary president of the Beijing Hockey Association (BHA), while Ying Rudi is training in Canada and aiming for selection for China men's team for the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games.

Almost 800 players in 57 teams competed at the Beijing Primary & High School Hockey Leagues in May, but officials argue more progress is needed.

"China is not like Europe and America, where hockey players have many ways to develop, such as high school teams, varsity teams, vocational hockey clubs and leagues," says BHA head Xin Tieliang. "Because of the huge pressure of school work and the lack of school facilities, a lot of children will leave ice hockey after they go to high school."

But the 2022 Winter Olympics are seen as an opportunity to build the sport.

"In the next six years, the government will develop winter sports vigorously," says Xin. "For example, by making ice hockey a PE course in schools and giving awards to outstanding senior high school students, so that ice hockey grow in popularity and keep developing."

One or two high schools in Beijing already have their own teams and have begun recruiting students with ice hockey skills. Peking University and Tsinghua University are also planning to set up their own teams.

"With the increase in young players, Beijing will build venues that are larger and more professional. Once young people have been provided with basic facilities, the number of players will surge," says Xin.

The BHA has 2,000 registered players and 19 clubs.

From youth sports camps and club leagues to TV and online broadcasts, China is tightening its bonds with traditional ice hockey powers like Canada and the US to strengthen exchanges and cooperation.

Cong, who is yet to graduate from university, has already established his own company in China. He teaches PE in English at schools and promotes ice hockey, baseball and rugby, which are exotic sports to Chinese children.

He hopes the kids now playing hockey will enjoy opportunities and excitement he could only imagine at their age. 

Posted in: Winter Sport

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