Skates scratch the ice and a coach’s cry echoes through the arena north of Toronto: “Go! Move, move, move!”
Four teens barrel down the rink, breathlessly chasing a puck.
The scene may be typically Canadian, but the players are all visitors — young Chinese here to master hockey.
“Because it’s Canada, like, the best place to play hockey in the world,” said 13-year-old Bert Wen, who plays for the Toronto Nationals AAA team.
All four of these players were born in Beijing, moving halfway around the globe with their parents at the age of nine or 10 to lace up with Canadian junior teams. They join many others who come looking for the ice time China doesn’t offer.
Beijing may have poured more than $4 billion into its upcoming Winter Olympics, but it’s struggling to field a respectable national team and opportunities for young hockey players are few.
“They’re hungry for it,” said Sonya von Kaufmann, who’s helped the Toronto Maple Leafs and many figure skaters improve their footwork, as well as running training camps in Shanghai.
Like the four players on the ice on this day, more and more of her young clients are hockey hopefuls from China.
“They have a real opportunity here, from East Coast to West Coast in Canada,” she said. “Every day, they can get on the ice and practise their skills. It’s not the same over there.”
‘A very hard decision’
For the Zhous, moving to Canada five years ago was a quest to fulfil their son’s hockey hopes. Jason and his mother Fanny packed up in Beijing and relocated to suburban Toronto.
“It’s a very hard decision,” said Fanny Zhou, “leaving his daddy, his grandma and grandpa and all our friends. But for me, his dream is my dream. So I came here with him.”
She now describes herself as an unlikely hockey mom.
Jason was a nine-year-old, obsessed with hockey but “not very good at it,” he said, despite skating and playing in China since the age of four. His hero? Wayne Gretzky.
He’s faced challenges here, first learning English, then adapting to a faster and rougher game.
“Sometimes, people look at me and they don’t think I can play hockey,” said Jason. “Some of them don’t even know that in China, we’re starting to love hockey. And more and more are starting to play it.”
Jason is a forward with the Toronto Marlboros under 15 AAA team. Aside from school, his world revolves around the sport. He trains in his family’s basement gym and practises shots on goal in a specially built room designed to look like a corner of the ice rink.
His dream is to compete professionally in the NHL. No Chinese-born player has done that. The closest was Andong (Misha) Song, who was drafted by the New York Islanders in 2015 but never played an NHL game.
China’s hockey future at risk
That’s the kind of “breakthrough” that would help Chinese hockey, said Mark Simon, a Canadian coach who spent 13 years working with players in Beijing and Shanghai and trying to promote the sport at all levels.
But he says what China really needs is a system similar to Canada’s, with many more coaches and facilities for young players and more teams for junior competition.
“There could be tens of thousands, even millions of kids in hockey there,” Simon said. “And when a system like this can properly be implemented in China, then in 15, 20 years, when kids start coming through it, then you’ll have potentially a [strong] Olympic team.”
The answer isn’t to keep relying on Canada to train them, Simon said.
“What happens to the future of hockey in China when all these 10-year-olds leave? What will be left?”
Hockey has just never been a Chinese priority, despite the chance to shine on home ice at the Winter Games in Beijing in February. Normally that’s key for China, where no Olympics are just for sport, but a political pursuit for national glory – a chance to show itself as a sports superpower.
Focusing on the individual
But Beijing has preferred to focus on individual rather than team events. In these sports, there’s a whole system of government-run schools where tens of thousands of children are trained for gold victory.
Not so in hockey.
China’s only hope at the 2022 games is a squad patched together with Chinese and foreigners – most of them Canadians — playing on the Kunlun Red Star, a pro team based in Moscow and competing in the Russian KHL league.
China is ranked 32nd in the world in hockey, behind Serbia and Spain, and just ahead of Australia. It didn’t qualify to compete in these Olympics, but may get special permission because of Beijing’s host role. The International Ice Hockey Federation is expected to make a final decision on whether the Kunlun team is good enough to compete in the coming days.
Allowing China to play could be “embarrassing” and a “setback” for the country’s hockey program, said Simon.
“To put them up against Canada, U.S., Russia and the rest of the top 12 countries in the world would be tough,” he said, especially since NHL players will be on the ice as part of their national teams.
Playing a ‘different style’
Kailin Chen won’t be playing for China at the upcoming Winter Games, but he dreams of helping his national team at the next Olympics.
He’s a forward for the St. Michael’s Buzzers in the Ontario Junior Hockey League. Chen has been playing in Canada for six years, long enough to have picked up a “different style” of hockey that makes him a better player now at 17, he said.
“In China, people tend to focus on their individual skills. They like to carry the puck on their own rather than passing and making plays with their teammates,” he said.
On a Friday night recently, Chen stood for the Canadian national anthem before taking to the ice for the Buzzers. He looks forward to hearing the Chinese anthem before his games in the future.
“I’ll feel proud of it,” he said. “Our own country playing a sport we love so much, trying to get better together. I think it’s a great thing.”