Payers from the Elementary School Affiliated to Renmin University (red) and Zhongguancun No 1 Primary School compete in an exhibition game at Wukesong Arena following the March 19 opening ceremony for the 2017 Haidian District School Hockey League season. Provided to China Daily
Li Yu, 11, is one of over 3,000 Beijing boys for most of whom ice hockey carries life-changing significance.
When he took to ice hockey at age three, Li's life path began to divert from the traditional ones. He spent most of his extracurricular time on playing ice hockey while his peers were attending after-school classes, according to his father.
This summer Li will go to Canada to play ice hockey. His father is choosing a boarding school for him.
"If not for ice hockey, it is needless for so young a boy to go to study overseas," said his father who asked for anonimity. "But next year he will go to middle school where in China he will be under huge pressure to study hard and have not much time to play ice hockey."
"We have to make a choice between Chinese traditional education and ice hockey. We chose the latter. So I decided to send him to study in Canada where he will receive quality ice hockey training. Almost all the kids who play ice hockey here take this way," his father said.
Li is following in the steps of his predecessors like Song Andong, who was drafted in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders.
The 20-year-old Song played hockey from childhood and at age ten he and his family moved to Oakville, Ontario, Canada. He played there with the Oakville Rangers which served as his career launching pad.
Song and Li belong to a unique group of Beijing boys who share a lot in common -- rich family, open-minded and resourceful parents and above all, ice hockey.
"When Li Yu started playing ice hockey eight years ago, there were about 300 kids in Beijing playing this sport, now the number has surpassed 3,000," said Feng Fei, general manager of Huaxi International Ice Hockey club.
"This means more and more families are getting rich, like in Canada or the United States, ice hockey is very expensive to play. Only the affluent families can afford it," said Feng.
Every boy is estimated to spend at least 60,000 Yuan RMB (8,698 US dollar) annually on ice hockey, according to Feng.
"After Beijing won the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, ice hockey is becoming popular here, now we have more than 30 indoor rinks in Beijing, and 10 of them were built up last year. We will have more boys playing ice hockey," Feng said.
"Ice hockey brought a lot of positive changes to the kids," said Feng. "Look at Li, he has never been bullied in school, nobody dared to do it. He works out on the rink three or four times a week and thanks to that he is strong, powerful and energetic. He now weighs 70 kg, almost 20 more than his classmates."
Li's father is also gratified to see how playing ice hockey has helped shape up his son's character.
"He is tough, never gave up until the end of match. I am very proud of his fighting spirit," his father said. "I think it is due to playing ice hockey."
Li was one of the talents that caught the eyes of Jay Tredway, sports director of the prestigious Ridley College of Canda, who set up a two-day training camp early April in Beijing.
"We have been impressed with the skill level of the kids, they skate well and they can handle the putt well," Tredway said.
"There are some very good athletes here, which is the foundation, you have to be a good athlete first to be a good hockey player. And for sure a lot of kids have the potential," he said.
Tredway found that some Chinese kids are well prepared to make further development.
"In Canada a lot of kids start playing hockey skating at three years old, here in China when we talked to some families, they said some kids began to play hockey at year of two. So not surprising some of the best have been playing for six years," he said.
"The longer they have been involved in that and at the younger age they began to be involved, the better you are going to be at this stage of development," he said.
Li will go to study in Canada this summer and hone his ice hockey skills with the aim to become a professional player in the future.
If he cannot turn professional, then according to the plan desinged by his father, he will try to enter a good university in the United States.
"We know it is very hard to be a professional player, so if my son fails to do so, he will apply for a good NCAA university. Playing good ice hockey can help him achieve that," his father said.
"Life is a journey full of choies, I try to choose the best one for my son," he said.