How Canada is helping China become a hockey superpower
China’s aspirations for the 2022 Beijing Olympics has led the Asian nation to seek out Canadian hockey expertise in a number of surprising ways.
Just the Basics
From midget leagues to the Great One himself, Canadians across the hockey spectrum are working with China to boost hockey’s profile in the country for the 2022 Winter Olympics
Increasing numbers of Chinese players are coming to Canada to gain valuable hockey experience in the OHL, CWHL, NHL and other regional leagues
Hockey is a great way to build lasting ties, and the NHL is working hard to wins fans in China; however, fraught political relations between Ottawa and Beijing could pose a threat
The 2018 Clarkson Cup Final was a special event for the Markham Thunder, which managed to clinch victory in overtime during their third appearance - but first win - in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) final. The 2018 final was also a roller-coaster ride for Markham’s opponents, the Kunlun Red Stars, who only joined the league during the 2017/18 season. The Red Stars managed to hold out against the Calgary Inferno, soldiering on through triple overtime to make their way to the final. The Red Star’s journey during the 2017/18 season was a long one - literally, as the team is based in Shenzhen, China. What’s more, the Red Star’s were not the only Chinese expansion team in the CWHL during that season, with the Vanke Rays, also from Shenzhen competing alongside Canadian and American teams.
With China pinning its hockey hopes on its women’s team, female hockey players in both China and Canada are benefiting from increased attention and funding. The entry of Chinese teams into the CWHL has been a major factor behind the implementation of stipends for CWHL players, who have been playing for free since the league was established in 2007. According to CWHL commissioner, Brenda Andress, the influx of Chinese marketing, sponsorships, licensing and broadcasting fees has made it possible for the league to start paying its players. Each CWHL team now has $100,000 to spend on players per year, with a floor of $2,000 and ceiling of $10,000 per player per year. While this is a pittance compared to men’s leagues, the influx of Chinese money is helping give female hockey players some long overdue compensation: Vanke Rays’ Finnish goalie Noora Räty jokes that her Chinese pay cheque equates to twenty years worth of back pay for financial losses she has incurred playing top level hockey.
Chinese teams coming to Canada to hone hockey skills
China is hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, and Beijing has been keen to improve its hockey talent, and has turned to the home of hockey to get help. The Chinese government has high hopes for its hockey teams, especially the women’s team which the government hopes will medal in 2022. Such hopes are not unfounded, as China’s women’s team came forth in Nagano in 1998, but has since fallen in international standings, and is currently ranked 20th by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). China’s men’s team is in an even worse position, currently sitting in 33rd place behind Iceland and Spain - although this is an improvement from 2016 when they were 37th.
Consequently, China is seeking out training opportunities and partnerships with Canadian hockey organizations in order to make up for a dearth of challenging opponents and ice time back at home. Such collaboration includes the aforementioned entry of Chinese teams into the CWHL, as well as exchanges with Canadian provincial and municipal hockey leagues. For example, the Sunshine Coast Minor Hockey Association hosted several teams from Qiqihar, China in February 2018, with seventeen Canadian players visiting Beijing in December of that year. The Qiqihar Randy Team - China’s top women’s team which boasts players with international tournament experience undertook an exhibition tour in Canada in 2018.
China’s national development team played the Hamilton Hawks Midget AA team of 15-17 year old girls in October 2018, narrowly winning 5:4, before going on to play the Hawks’ Midget A team. There is even the annual hockey friendly in Ottawa between senior Canadian generals and the defence attachés of over twenty embassies, including China. While the Generals Team won 5:4 in 2018, Chinese defence attaché and Embassy Team goalie Wang Haifeng, was named MVP and given the nickname ‘Great Wall’ for his valiant goaltending.
Whereas China dwarfs Canada demographically, when its comes to hockey, Canada remains the reigning giant, with some 637,000 registered hockey players in 2017/18, compared to just 2,764 in China, although this number has jumped to 12,060 according to latest figures, thanks to Beijing’s hockey promotion efforts. The gulf in terms of rink numbers is also massive, with Canada boasting 8,300 compared to China’s 410.
The dearth of domestic players could be seen during the 2017/18 season, as only half of KRS Vanke Rays players were Chinese, the rest coming from North America or Europe. During the 2018/19 season there were the same number (eight) of Chinese-born and Canadian players on the team. Similarly, the Vanke Rays parent team, the Kunlun Red Stars men’s team based in Beijing, which joined Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in 2016 currently has only one Chinese-born player on the roster: what they do have is fourteen Canadians. Moreover, leading Red Star is Canadian-American (and former Vancouver Canucks player) head coach Curt Frasier. This emphasis on foreign talent is not surprising, given how new the team is as well as hockey’s nascent presence in China, but it does demonstrate how reliant China’s hockey aspirations on Canada really are.
While China may be relying on foreign talent to jump start its professional hockey teams, its path to Olympic fame is more limited. As a result, “one of the initiatives now is to identify North Americans of Chinese descent who can help China medal and that’s truly the goal of the government, the Chinese Ice Hockey Association and Kulun Red Star. In southern China, where our professional team is hosted, they’d never seen hockey before we arrived [in 2017].” explains KRS Vanke Rays coach Rob Morgan. Efforts to recruit (and naturalize) foreign talent is a common tactic for countries hoping to do well at the Olympics, especially when they are seeking to break into new sports. For instance, American Alex Carpenter scored Kunlun’s winning goal over Calgary in the 2018 CWHL semi-final, with the team’s Finnish goalie Noora Räty blocking sixty-six shots.
One can see the fruit of this recruitment drive with Kunlun’s men’s team and their focus on Chinese-Canadian players, and Team China is looking to follow suit. One potential recruit is Emily Costales, a University of British Columbia (UBC) student who plays for the UBC Thunderbirds. Costales is half-Chinese and is keen to play for Team China as it presents a more options for women looking for high-level hockey positions. “I know a few of the girls that could potentially be playing on Team Canada too so it could potentially be a bit of rivalry I think, but it would be all good fun,” notes Costales.
Chinese youth look to Canada to live the hockey dream
It is not only Canadian players that are looking to China for more playing opportunities, as many aspiring Chinese hockey players are moving to Canada in order to pursue their hockey dreams, having outgrown the level of play currently on offer in China. Two such players include Eddie Yan and Sean Wu, members of China’s U20 team which recently won the IIHF Division III tournament in Iceland, a victory which will see them compete in Division II Group B in 2020, an important milestone for Chinese hockey. Yan and Wu both moved to Toronto a decade ago - home of the Hockey Hall of Fame - to continue their hockey training: back in Beijing they were part of only two hundred hockey players in a city of twenty-four million.
Wu has been a midget AAA goalie with the Toronto Young Nationals program for the last eight seasons, and helped his team reach the Telus Cup national championship last season. “I know 100 percent if I never played hockey I would still be back in China right now and we wouldn’t be having this talk,” explains Wu, “hockey has definitely made me a better person.” Yan also played with the Young Nationals, and landed a spot with the Greater Toronto Hockey League’s (GTHL) Toronto Marlboros upon arriving in Canada. He also played with the Don Miller Flyers and was a late-round draft pick for the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Sudbury Wolves.
Ten years ago neither imagined they would be playing for Team China. Yan remembers leaving for Toronto after visiting China clutching his DVD of the Pittsburgh Penguins 2015/16 Stanley Cup winning season: “I’ve probably watched it thirty times. Sidney Crosby is my idol,” says Yan. Wu - Team China’s U20 goalie - lists Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price as his inspiration. Increased Chinese interest in hockey may also raise the profile of another hockey role model, one that players such as Wu and Yan could turn to for inspiration, namely Canadian Larry Kwong. Born in Vernon, BC in 1923, Kwong become the first person to break the colour barrier in the NHL in 1948, just eleven months after Jackie Robinson’s better known breakthrough in baseball.
Other young Chinese players in Canada include Noah Li who, as of 2016, is training with a London Knights affiliated academy in London, Ontario. London is also hosting Michael Wong, a player with the London Lakers Junior A team who energetically announces that “I’m pretty excited to be playing in Canada.” Both players are being aided Beijing-based Canadian hockey coach Mark Simon, who says ice time in Canada is vital if Chinese hockey wants to improve. Speaking on his efforts to send Li and Wong to Canada, Simon explains that “if we could get young Chinese players into Canadian junior hockey training programs they could learn in a hockey culture, a hockey environment [...] This is one things that Canada can do to really help China.”
The Great One & The Great Wall
The exchange of hockey talent between Canada and China is helping cement ties between the two countries, as well as position Canada as the go-to source for hockey expertise. Foreign hockey ambassadors (many of whom are from Canada) are a key component of China’s efforts to boost hockey’s profile in the run-up to the 2022 Olympics. Speaking on Beijing’s hockey drive, IIHF president Rene Fasel notes that “China is very good in that when they decide to do something, they do it. And I love [China adopting] this Canadian approach [of] ‘We want to be the best in the world.’” A great example of Canada-China hockey ties is the annual pond hockey tournament organized by Canadian-owned hockey and lifestyle company, CanLife Sports & Entertainment in Beijing. Now in its fifth year, the tournament brings together some twenty teams from around China and the expat community, with the latest edition taking place on a frozen pond next to the Great Wall of China.
When it comes to hockey, China is going all out, and nothing says you are serious like hiring the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky, to boost Chinese hockey. Gretzky is now a global ambassador for Kunlun Red Star (KRS), and is working on opening a KRS-Gretzky Hockey School for 8-17 year-olds in Beijing and Shenzhen: at least twenty such schools are eventually planned for cities across China. Alongside his star power, Gretzky was tapped to help boost Chinese hockey because of his role in popularizing the sport in California following his transfer to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. Gretzky’s success with the Kings is said to have played an important role in the NHL’s expansion into the southern United States. Like much of the southern United States in the 1980s, China is virgin hockey territory, and Beijing hopes Gretzky can work his magic to help inspire a generation of Chinese players.
“With the people of China hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, we’re trying to give hockey a little bit of a jump start, a little bit of a boost” explains Gretzky. “With the NHL here and this country having a team in the KHL, hockey seems to be on the rise and it’s great for everyone.” While Gretzky has stated he is impressed with the quality of Chinese skating, “the thing I’ve noticed here more than anything is the people are so friendly and hospitable. It’s been overwhelming how nice the people have been to us, so that part has been tremendous.”
NHL eyeing China as a key growth market
Gretzky’s mention of the NHL’s presence in China refers to the series of pre-season exhibition games staged by NHL teams for the O.R.G NHL China Games. Sponsored by billionaire businessman and hockey fan Zhou Yunjie of O.R.G Packing, the first rendition saw the Vancouver Canucks and LA Kings play two exhibition games in 2017, with the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins playing in Beijing and Shenzhen in September 2018. The NHL has agreed to organize pre-season games in China for six of the next eight seasons, much to the delight of Chinese hockey fans. The Stanley Cup is also making a 2019 trip to China, with a NHL Fan Fest and Hockey Day in Beijing.
The NHL is looking to China as a key market, with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman describing China as an “exciting, interesting opportunity that based on the sheer magnitude of the market, can’t be and shouldn’t be ignored.” Even with hockey in its nascent stages in China the sheer size of the country means that hockey viewing numbers in China even at this early stage have caught the attention of the NHL. Commenting on this trend, Gretzky recalls that “the Chinese people have really rallied around hockey. Somebody told me that Game 6 (of the Stanley Cup Final) between [the] Pittsburgh [Penguins] and Nashville [Predators] had 36 million people in China that watched…so it shows you the size of the market in China is pretty amazing.” In other words, more people watched the Stanley Cup Final in China than the entire population of Canada.
The NHL is looking to replicate the success of the NBA, as basketball has become China’s most watched sport: 300 million Chinese now playing basketball. “I think hockey can be one of our top four sports in China,” says Kunlun team owner Billy Ngok. “With continuous growth and continuous effort, I think the women definitely have a chance to one day win a gold medal. With the men we still have a long way to go, but they should be at least among the top clubs in hockey, as a new power in the future, a powerhouse.”
Observers have pointed out that the NHL is in a position akin to that of the NBA three decades ago. In 2018, 22,151 fans attended the NHL’s China Games, with some 15,000 seats going unfilled, leading Chinese hockey ambassador Phil Esposito to claim that the NHL “blew it” - but The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell has pointed out that these numbers are similar to the NBA’s early numbers when it entered China. Despite a slow start, by 1994 the NBA finals were covered in China, and the sport exploded after Yao Ming was drafted in 2002.
In comparison, state-run broadcaster CCTV began showing four live NHL games a week during the 2013-2014 season; the 7am weekend time slot managed to attract an average audience of some 800,000 households. It is still early days for the NHL in China, but the country already has its own Yao Ming in the form of Andong Song, the first Chinese born player to be drafted by the NHL. Song was 172nd in the 2015 NHL draft, joining the New York Islanders, and has since become well known in China. Song’s profile has risen further since being announced as an ambassador for the 2022 Winter Olympics (alongside Yao Ming) in 2015.
The NHL’s focus on China may also lead to increasing pressure on the league to allow the participation of NHL players in the Olympics. The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea were a TV flop, with a thirty percent drop in U.S viewership for men’s hockey games compared to 2014 when NHL players were allowed to compete. While Bettman has been non-committal about NHL participation in 2022, Beijing wants its Olympics to be a success, something which an NHL no-show would undermine.
The men’s hockey final is always the closing event of the Winter Olympics: a tournament replete with NHL superstars would be the feather in China’s cap, according to Ottawa Citizen commentator Adil Sayeed. Sayeed even suggests that Chinese President Xi Jinping and PM Justin Trudeau could work together to resolve the financial impasse between the NHL and International Olympic Committee and ensure NHL player participation. Both the Chinese and Canadian viewing public would be pleased, with such cooperation a potential salve for fraught Canada-China relations; think Washington’s ‘ping-pong politics’ in the 1970s, posits Sayeed.
China-Canada tensions could hamper hockey promotion efforts
Whether the analogy to Nixon’s rapprochement with China is apt is debatable, but Sayeed’s point does raise the potential for Beijing’s fight with Ottawa to sour bilateral efforts to promote hockey. Tensions between China and Canada in the wake of the Huawei fiasco and the retaliatory detention of Canadians in China overshadow the hockey industry. The NHL is putting a lot of stock into its O.R.G China Games, yet these could be threatened by a sudden reversal by Beijing, should the Chinese government seek to punish Ottawa and/or Washington. “If China decided that relations with either the U.S or Canada area bad, they could pull the plug, even a week or days before the games are supposed to happen,” warns William Hurst, professor of Chinese foreign policy at Northwestern University.
With Ottawa warning Canadians about the risks involved in travelling to China, there is concern that Canadian hockey organizers are ignoring geopolitical tensions, thus potentially endangering players. Back in January, former Canadian ambassador to China (2009-2012) David Mulroney expressed his worries about CWHL games in China, arguing that the league should find a way to postpone its trips to China until tensions simmer down.
At the time, CWHL commissioner Jayna Hefford stated that the league had no plans to alter its playing schedule, commenting that “we have great partners in China and we’re growing the sport globally. We look forward to continuing the relationship with them - but we would never put the safety of our players in jeopardy.” In response, Mulroney cautions it would not take much for Chinese authorities to decide to make an example of a Canadian player, should a fight occur during a game, or celebrations get too rowdy.
“The chances of [a Canadian player] being treated harshly by Chinese authorities are suddenly significantly higher. The Canadian government can work painstakingly at the diplomatic level, but if you’re detained in China, the options are very limited. [...] I wouldn’t say a hockey game is a good enough reason for me [to go to China].” While the NHL in China is benefiting from prominent supporters such as Billy Ngok and Zhou Yanjie, these individuals may dial back their support if faced with pressure from Beijing. “I’d hold off until there’s a determination about Ms. Meng and that could take some time. I know that’s frustrating, but China has a long memory. [...] In China, you don’t want to be the person who is cozying up to Canada at a time when the patriotic Chinese are supposed to be mad at Canada,” explains Mulroney.
The Bottom Line
China has made hockey promotion a national priority in the run-up to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, with the government harbouring hopes that its women’s team will medal. Standing in the way of these aspirations is the fact that hockey remains very much in its infancy in China. Consequently, China is turning to the homeland of hockey for support, with everyone from midget teams to Wayne Gretzky looking to help out. Chinese teams now compete in the KHL and CWHL, and increasing numbers of Chinese players are finding their way into the NHL and regional Canadian leagues.
For China’s top talent, the Chinese hockey scene remains too small to facilitate effective training, so Chinese players are coming to Canada to gain valuable ice time and play against some of the world’s best. At the same time, more Canadians are looking to China for playing opportunities, as Chinese teams seek out foreign talent to bolster their chances. Significant strides have been made to encourage the growth of local talent, with the Chinese government and Chinese hockey fans working with the NHL to build the sport’s fan base in China. NHL games are now broadcast live, NHL teams play exhibition matches in China and the Stanley Cup is embarking on a 2019 publicity tour in Beijing.
Hockey has the potential to forge stronger ties between China and Canada as people in both countries can bond over their shared love of the sport. Hockey may even play an important role in strengthening Canadian soft-power and influence in China, although the sport could also fall victim to international politics should Beijing decide the punish Ottawa and Washington because of ongoing geo-political tensions.
Title image credit: s.yume via FLICKR