Ice hockey, already a popular sport worldwide, has recently shown off its ability to charm players and audiences in markets where it has not traditionally garnered attention. Recent top-level games hosted in China are evidence of this change, as is the top-level Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) club hosted since 2016.
The KHL is an international tournament created to further the development of hockey throughout Russia and other nations across Europe and Asia. On June 25, 2016, the Kunlun Red Star (KRS), China' s first professional club, agreed to participate in the KHL, with its home opener held on September 5, 2016 at the Wukesong LeSports Center in Beijing. KRS emerged victorious from that game.
"This was the first ice hockey game in years in Wukesong," said Jin Fei, operational manager of the Wukesong LeSports Center, "We built a set of ice-making facilities in the gymnasium in 2008 when the center was built, but for years we did not have many chances to hold ice hockey games here. Now we have an ice hockey club, and it is a top one. After soccer and basketball, I hope ice hockey can become another headline sport in Beijing."
"KRS is a unique club in China," said Liao Zhongyu, president of the club, "We are the only professional ice hockey club in China, and we are participating in one of the first-class ice hockey leagues. It is our mission to raise the visibility of hockey culture in China and to cultivate ice hockey talents, and to improve the level of Chinese ice hockey teams."
KRS has 28 players, but as of now, there are 20 foreign players and only five Chinese. According to Liao, this is a reality of the current situation in Chinese ice hockey.
"China does not have much of an ice hockey culture. We don't have a league here and there are few players in China. In recent years, more and more young people are getting involved in the sport, but this is far from enough," Liao said.
"That is what we are planning to do, to draw the attention of young people. The situation may take years to get better, but we are determined to make it happen," added Liao.
One such effort was made at the end of last year, when KRS built a cooperative partnership with the Chinese U18 and U20 ice hockey teams. Under the agreement, KRS will provide training facilities and create a series of international games for the two Chinese teams.
"This is a part of the plan. Through cooperation with KRS, our young Chinese teams will have more chances to play on the international stage," said Wang Zhili, vice president of the Chinese Ice Hockey Association (CHA).
The CHA has released an integrated development plan, setting goals for ice hockey in China for 2016-2022, aimed at nursing talents from the grassroots level to the elite echelons of the sport.
Specific targets include entry for the Chinese men's and women's teams at 2022 Winter Olympics, Wang cited the plan as saying.
The plan also mentioned opening-up and international cooperation measures in related fields.
"The Chinese women's team was once one of the best in the world, but the professional scene has deteriorated since the 1990s. Right now, the national team faces a shortage of players," said Wang.
At the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Games in Japan, China's women's ice hockey team came in fourth place. In the 2002 games in Salt Lake City and 2010 games in Vancouver, China won seventh place.
In recent years, the Chinese ice hockey team's world ranking fell to around 15, and they didn't qualify for the 2014 Sochi games.
Following Beijing's winning bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the Chinese government has unveiled a plan to involve 300 million people in winter sports in China. And in Beijing, ice hockey is one of the fastest-growing winter sports. There are currently around 2,700 players registered with the Beijing Ice Hockey Association, and more than 130 teams competed in the 2016 Beijing Youth Ice Hockey League.
Wang said he is happy to see these changes, knowing that more and more children are learning about the sport, but adds that it will take many years before public enthusiasm can improve the situation of professional ice hockey in China.
"We don't have a target set for 2018 Winter Olympics, and we hope the Chinese team will have a good result in 2022, but the more important thing is that we build a mature system to support ice hockey," added Wang.