The Beijing factor
Hosting 2022 Olympics is galvanizing China’s program
VALDEMORO, Spain – The four teams competing in Spain are starting out on the long road towards the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, but for one of them 2022 is the key date.
China will host the Games in a little over six years from now and hopes for automatic qualification for the hockey tournament. But while Korea is 23rd in the IIHF World Ranking, China is 38th. (It looks better for the women’s team, which is ranked 16th.)
At the Olympic Qualification event in Spain only Bulgaria is ranked lower among the teams battling to progress in Olympic Qualification, so there’s a lot of work to be done to put some fire back into the dragon.
Head coach Benyu Wang tasted success in his first competition behind the bench, leading China to its best result in six years to climb out of the Division II Group B held in Cape Town, South Africa, back in April. He’s also been involved in preparing the national team for exhibition games against opposition from some of the strongest hockey nations on earth.
“It’s not just about playing in our own league and in the Asia League,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. “We have arranged games in Russia and sent teams to Canada and America to play more games and gain experience. Every game we play helps us to get better and prepare for 2022.”
Future plans include helping China’s top players to move to major leagues in Europe and North America in search of a higher level of competition and greater experience than they can manage at home.
These international efforts are already making a difference, as April’s performance in South Africa shows. The Shanghai-based China Dragon has played in the Asia League since 2008, taking on pro teams from Japan, Korea and Russia’s Far East.
In Valdemoro the Dragon supplies assistant coach Jiang Hu and a handful of players on the roster including Xijun Cui, the tournament’s leading scorer in Cape Town, and two-way defenceman Longtan Liu. Others in the squad represent the traditionally powerful Harbin team from China’s icy territories close to the Russian border, playing in a city that now boast its own university hockey program.
Russia’s influence looms large over Chinese hockey development. Earlier this week Chinese teams travelled to Sakhalin to play in an international youth tournament, while a KHL delegation visited Shanghai last month returning with upbeat talk of closer ties to hockey in the Far East.
For coach Wang, that can only be a good thing. “The Russians are helping us to get a team in that league and from our point of view we’d love to join,” he said. “Russian hockey is really great, it’s one of the best hockey nations in the world. Of course we want to be a part of that. It would give us a lot of experience and we can learn a great deal from the skills of the Russian players.”
In Valdemoro, China started as outsiders with the lowest world ranking of the four teams here. Wang’s players also faced a draining journey to get to Spain, with the impact of a 13-hour flight eating into the preparation time available for the team. The clear 10-1 loss to Spain on the opening day didn’t come as a surprise but the coach knows that after the excitement of the Winter Olympic announcement there will be more attention than ever back home.
“We can’t really put numbers on it at the moment but we are seeing a lot of new players coming into the game,” he said. “In particular we’re seeing many youth players. People are falling in love with hockey, children want to get involved and their families are helping them to take up the sport.”
Article and photo from IIHF.com