The Hongcouver
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This skating life: Spreading the gospel of ice hockey in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2015, 3:51am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:49am

Ice hockey has given a lot to Gregory Smyth since he first laced up his skates as a five-year-old in chilly Ottawa.

Now he’s 47, and still playing, even though he moved to steamy Hong Kong 20 years ago. Not only is he still holding his own on the ice, he’s the co-founder of the HK-based China Ice Hockey League - and is one of the CIHL’s top scorers. He’s the co-owner of a team back in Canada. He’s championed an internship programme that brings players from North America to play in Hong Kong, and is busily fostering junior ranks.

Smyth’s love of hockey is almost evangelical. He dreams of the day when it is as big in the SAR as it is in Canada.

It’s not there yet. But “hockey is alive and well in Hong Kong,” said Smyth, who works in data analytics and has had various internet businesses.

Watch: The 2014-15 CIHL final

The CIHL’s games are all played in Hong Kong, despite the names of the teams, which include the South China Sharks and the Macau Aces, as well as the Hong Kong Tycoons and Kowloon Warriors. “The reason we’ve got the different places on the teams is that at some point we expect cross-border games,” with the broad goal of creating a greater China hockey league, said Smyth.

The CIHL has just completed its fourth season. Smyth set up the league with Gary Lawrence and Rick Siemens, part of the “Canadian hockey mafia in Hong Kong”. Smyth, Lawrence and Siemens are also majority owners of the British Columbia-based Coquitlam Express, a team that plays in the BCHL.

One of the key elements of the CIHL is its internship programme, which brings Canadian and US players in their early 20s to Hong Kong. It’s a novel approach, that both allows players to continue playing hockey at an age when many leave the sport, while bolstering the playing and instructing ranks of the league in the SAR. “It’s two-fold. There weren’t enough high-quality instructors in Hong Kong, so we are bringing in Canadian university players, NCAA players - we draw from all over North America,” said Smyth.

The interns also work in Hong Kong companies. “We’re giving a worldly experience to these young guys, who get to live and work in this vibrant city,” Smyth said.

So far eight players have come to Hong Kong under the programme, including the three 2014-2015 interns, Whitney Olsen, Brad Smith and Jeff Ceccacci. Previous interns, including all three from the 2013-2014 season, have ended up staying in Hong Kong, where they now work and continue to play.

Smyth said about a third of the CIHL’s senior league players were ethnically Chinese; in the younger leagues, the players were mostly local ethnic Chinese Hongkongers.

Only  a handful of Chinese-heritage players have made it to the top ranks of the NHL, most notably Brandon Yip (an alumnus of the Coquitlam Express), who played five NHL seasons from 2009 and now plays in Germany.

Smyth – who himself plays for the Kowloon Warriors and weighs 100kg - said the size of the local players was not an issue, something that is sometimes anecdotally cited to explain the relative lack of Asian players in hockey’s top ranks. “The local Chinese are getting bigger,” he laughed. “I’ve looked at the 12 and 14-year-olds coming through the pipeline and these are not small kids,” said Smyth.

Smyth said part of the issue back in Canada may once have been cultural. “I’ve got Chinese friends who moved to Canada when they were young and their parents wouldn’t let them play hockey, maybe they were too small, but this is one of those things that are changing over time…it’s just a matter of cultural integration [in Canada],” said Smyth.

But there appears to be no such situation in Hong Kong. “There’s a thousand kids playing hockey, right now,” said Smyth, referring to the Hong Kong junior ranks.

The real problem was not a lack of players, but a lack of ice. “That’s what might inhibit the sport,” sighed  Smyth. Mega Ice in Kowloon Bay, where the CIHL plays its adult games, is the only full-sized rink in Hong Kong. “Eight million people and one full-sized rink. Go to Vancouver and there are probably 200 rinks within an hour,” Smyth lamented.

Smyth dreams of the day when hockey in Hong Kong enjoys a bigger following. “I would love to see it become as big as it is in Canada. It’s such a great sport. I’d love to see more kids enjoy this as a team sport, and experience the sportsmanship that goes along with it. It’s benefited me so greatly in my life. And I’d love to share that.”

After 42 years on the ice, Smyth admits that playing “is getting tougher at times". "But I still move around pretty good," he adds.

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The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email [email protected] or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70.