Developing winter sport is daunting in Hong Kong, but Thomas Wu possesses the passion to do it
Confident patron has can-do spirit to achieve 'mission impossible' in city
The obstacles seem insurmountable, but Thomas Wu Man-sun is not fazed.
He is confident ice hockey will soon become a mainstream sport in the city, pinning his belief on a can-do spirit which has already borne results - Hong Kong will be fielding a team in the men's world championship in Luxembourg in April.
It might only be Division Three, but it is the first time in 27 years Hong Kong is sending a team to a world championship. All because of Wu's long love affair with ice hockey.
By all rights the sport shouldn't even be on the radar here. The problems are manifold, but prime among them is the lack of facilities. Only four ice rinks are available, of which just two can be used by adults. The shortage is exacerbated by the fact that all four rinks are built in shopping malls, which means the public comes first, resulting in league games starting as late as 11pm on a Sunday. The league comprises four teams, the minimum required to qualify for the IIHF world championship.
If ice time is precious, the cost of hiring the rinks for league games is a mind-boggling HK$10,000 per hour. With a full game lasting two-and-a-half hours, this translates into HK$25,000 for a game.
"We make do and adapt, just like any entrepreneur in Hong Kong," says Wu, shrugging his slim shoulders. "For instance, all our matches in our recreation league are limited to one hour."
His ability to "make do" is perhaps due to his genes. His dad is billionaire businessman Gordon Wu Ying-sheung.
"I'm a third-generation entrepreneur. My father has done more seemingly impossible tasks and I don't think spreading the message of ice hockey is a mission impossible," says Wu who is vice-president of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and also holds senior positions in both the Hong Kong as well as mainland governing bodies - Hong Kong Ice Hockey Association honorary president, and China Ice Hockey Association vice-chairman.
The local game is lucky it has a patron with deep pockets as well as one held in high regard internationally. At the Sochi Olympics last month, Wu was called on to present the last gold medal after Canada defeated Sweden in the men's ice hockey competition.
The world governing body (IIHF) looks on Wu as a vital expansion conduit into China. Wu hopes Hong Kong can piggy-back on the interest shown in China and raise the profile of ice hockey in his home city.
Educated in the US, Wu's love for the game was also kindled there.
"I first made contact with the sport when I was in high school in the States. But I was just a spectator and only started playing after returning to Hong Kong to work in 1999," said the 41-year-old Wu. "I had been skating in Hong Kong for many years, but when the opportunity came I started playing."
An established businessman, he started to turn his gaze to rinks more than a decade ago and the fruits are starting to be reaped.
"I started the Hong Kong Amateur Hockey Club in 2001 and we have organised more than 2,000 matches. We have now started a league, which was a crucial step towards Hong Kong being accepted to play in the world championship," Wu said.
"I'm also behind the Hong Kong Academy of Ice Hockey, which we began in 2007 with an eye on pushing the sport among local schools. We have reached out to more than 200 schools and more than 23,000 students have received ice hockey training."
Today 1,300 players, most of them below 18, are involved.
Leading the way is Wu's club and academy, which is headed by New York Rangers legend Barry Beck and includes former China women's national player Tan Anqi, who is a coach.
"Our academy focuses on youth. Barry, our head coach, goes to local schools, primary and secondary, where we build a partnership by starting school leagues.
"Our format is simple: it is easier to leverage with schools than individuals. Rather than calling every parent, we deal with a school. So we partner schools and build school teams that way.
"Last year, we started working with the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups and tapped into the network in all 18 districts. This helped in our recruitment drive.
"We want the sport to be local and we work with local schools, but sadly our scope is limited. If we had more rinks, we could do more," Wu said.
If increasing player numbers and raising standards in Hong Kong is top of his must-do list, Wu realises that the city's future in the sport is umbilically tied to that of the growth on the mainland.
Thus the news that Beijing, together with the northern city of Zhangjiakou will bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics was welcomed by Wu.
Five cities will bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics including Almaty (Kazakhstan), Beijing, Lviv (Ukraine), Kraków (Poland) and Oslo (Norway). They all have to submit their initial plans to the IOC by Friday.
"If Beijing is successful, it will be a spur for people in Hong Kong to sit up and take more notice of winter sports.
"I'm working with China on the development of ice hockey. There is more interest in winter sports on the mainland, as seen in Sochi with events like curling. Hosting a Winter Olympics will boost further interest in China."
As Asia's top representative in the IIHF, Wu has his finger on the pulse internationally, and he is convinced the future for the region, too, is closely intertwined with China. At present, there are 17 countries in Asia, which foster ice sports, a far cry from the 45 set to compete in the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, this September.
"Last year, I made a presentation to the IIHF where I said if we are able to unlock China then it would also help grow ice sports in the rest of Asia too. The world governing body is very keen to get into China and is trying to find a way to cooperate.
"As far as ice hockey is concerned, there is every indication Beijing wants to grow winter sports and this is music to my ears."