Students from Tsinghua University Primary School at a hockey training session in Beijing. The sport is becoming increasingly popular among youngsters in the Chinese capital, and many parents see it as a great way of improving their children’s fitness and mental resilience.[Photo by Cai Jun/China Daily]
Hockey is becoming increasingly popular on the back of the Chinese capital’s application to be chosen as host city of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
Just halfway through his 90-minute training session, every piece of Wen Bocheng’s hockey gear－helmet, gloves, and even his shoulder pads－was drenched in sweat as the 10-year-old drove the puck up and down the rink.
Despite fatigue and the occasional bruise, the fifth-grade student’s face is full of excitement and satisfaction after every practice session he attends with more than 20 of his peers at the Tsinghua University Primary School. The students meet three times a week on the standard 1,800-square-meter rink at the Dreamport Mall in north Beijing, and Wen also plays one full-contact game every week to feed his growing passion for the sport.
“Sometimes I’ve bruised my elbow or knocked my nose, but I am cool with it because I love playing hockey,” he said. “It was totally new for me at the beginning, but I’ve become addicted after playing for almost six years. It’s helped me to become a tough boy.”
Wen and his hard-working peers are among 1,500 children from a record 96 teams registered with the Beijing Ice Hockey Association’s 2014-15 Beijing Minor Hockey Premier League. They play throughout winter and spring.
Skating on frozen ponds for fun has been a popular winter pastime for Beijingers since the 1960s, but modern winter sports such as hockey and figure skating have only recently emerged as fashionable forms of recreation for urban youths such as Wen.
The popularity of winter sports will be further fueled by Beijing’s bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, said Liu Ge, vice-president and secretary-general of the BHA.
The executive board of the International Olympic Committee named Beijing, Oslo, and Almaty in Kazakhstan as the final candidate cities for 2022, but Oslo withdrew its bid in October, leaving the contest a straight fight between Beijing and Almaty. The winner will be selected in Kuala Lumpur in July.
“Grassroots participation in hockey has boomed in recent years, with an increasing number of middle-class families accepting the once high-end sport as a unique tool to improve their children’s fitness and mental toughness. The Olympic bid will definitely provide another boost for the sport, attracting more people and more funds,” Liu said.
In an attempt to further push the popularity of winter sports and raise awareness of the Olympic movement and the spirit it embodies, Beijing and nearby Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, launched their joint Olympic bid in November 2013.
The aim is to encourage 300 million people in North China to participate in winter sports, while simultaneously accelerating upgrades of the urban infrastructure and controlling air pollution.
To promote hockey among juniors, the BHA organized the first interschool tournament in 2014, and 19 teams from 15 primary schools in Beijing competed in this year’s event, which was held in May.
Observers said the tournament’s intense final, featuring end to end action and plenty of big hits demonstrated the players’ determination.
“In the beginning, we were kind of worried about the frequent body checks, but when you watch your children working hard at something they love at a young age, learning discipline, teamwork and camaraderie, there’s really nothing you can do but support them,” said Wen Quan, Wen Bocheng’s father.
To raise awareness of the bid among children, the education authorities in Beijing have included winter sports in the regular physical education curriculum. They have also provided a special budget to allow schools to rent commercial rinks.
“Given that students lack outdoor exercise in winter and are under intense pressure academically, it’s a great boost to physical education on campus. Playing team sports such as hockey will help build character and improve the students’ physical health,” said Huang Kan, commissioner of the Beijing Municipal Education Commission.
According to Zheng Shiyong, deputy director of education in north Beijing’s Yanqing county, where the alpine skiing events of the 2022 Winter Games will be held if the bid is successful, seven schools in the suburb have been identified as winter sports special schools. It’s expected that by 2022, more than 10,000 teenagers in the county will participate in winter sports every day.
However, a lack of decent rinks and qualified coaches has made it difficult for the sports to flourish in the Chinese capital, which currently has just five game-standard rinks－far from enough to meet the growing public demand－and the dearth of facilities mean too few games of hockey are available to juniors, according to the BHA’s Liu.
To promote winter sports in schools, the association is working with a number of companies to develop artificial ice surfaces, which could be assembled, disassembled and transferred like mobile basketball courts, but with much lower operating costs.
Century Star, China’s first commercial ice-sports club, operates 13 nationwide. It plans to open at least 10 more this year, most of them in the south of the country. Another Beijing club, Champion Rink, which manages 12 facilities, has prepared a five-city expansion plan that will cover a large number of provinces in the south.
“Promoted by the bid for the Winter Olympics, ice-based sports are more popular than ever, and the governing body’s call to develop them in the warmer areas in the south will bring us more business opportunities,” said Fan Jun, a former national skating champion who is the chairman of Century Star.
Huang Feng, the chief coach at Century Star, said the club’s Capital Gymnasium Rink has been full from 1 pm to 8 pm almost every working day since the beginning of the year. Before that development, weekends were the venue’s busiest times.
“Demand is growing, and we’ve had to stop accepting random ‘walk-up’ customers at weekends because the rink is usually fully booked by customers on training courses,” he said.
Fan said one of the club’s commercial rinks, in the suburbs of north Beijing, was visited by almost 180,000 skaters in 2013, a 25 percent increase from the previous year.
Last year, Century Star established a development program in association with Jilin Sports University to train and draft graduates as coaches.
“Becoming a junior coach is a really good job for college graduates and student athletes. More people should get involved,” said Wang Shuai, a Beijing Sport University graduate in 2007 who has been coaching hockey for four years.
PARENTAL SACRIFICES AND DEDICATION KEY TO SUCCESS IN THE JUNIOR LEAGUES
Kang Ping saw a skating rink for the first time in 2001. The Sichuan native was fascinated by the elegance of the youthful skaters and the smiles that spread across their faces as they rocketed across the ice at Beijing’s China World Mall.
She quickly made a decision. “Growing up in the warmth of South China, I had never seen a real rink or had the opportunity to play with ice and snow. Children born in North China are so lucky to be able to play on the ice in winter, and I decided I wanted my children to have the same chance,” said Kang, who arrived in Beijing in 1990 as a student.
Her wish came true. She now has two lively sons, and both of them play hockey.
Kang brought her elder son, He Shuyang, 10, to a rink for the first time when he was just 4, hoping that the full-contact sport would hone the boy’s strength and toughen him up.
He quickly fell in love with the game, so Kang introduced her younger son, He Shuhang, to the rink at an even earlier age. In fact, she says she almost brought him up on the ice.
“Once people are involved with the sport, both the children and parents can’t help but become obsessed by it. Our children have grown a lot, both physically and mentally, through playing hockey, and we enjoy watching them grow,” she said.
To fully support her sons, who play for the Tsinghua University Primary School team in the Beijing interschool league, Kang quit her job to become a full-time driver and practice partner. Several of her hockey mom peers have done the same.
Driving her children to rinks five times a week, helping them with their equipment and taking videos, has become an enjoyable routine, according to the 41-year-old.
“You really have to prepare yourself to sacrifice your career, but seeing them grow and learning the virtues of teamwork and dedication through exercise is pretty rewarding,” she said.
Although the popularity of winter sports is rising in China, hockey remains a relatively expensive hobby. A 90-minute session at one of Beijing’s commercial rinks costs from 200 yuan ($33) to 300 yuan, and a full outfit for a junior player costs at least 20,000 yuan.
Junior ice hockey players train at least three times per week and upgrade their entire set of gear every two years as they grow, said Liu Ge, deputy-president of the Beijing Ice Hockey Association.
Wen Quan, the father of a student player, spends at least 200,000 yuan, including travel and accommodation for trips, on his son’s hobby every year. “It’s really a large amount of money for the average family, but the benefits our son gains make it a worthwhile investment,” he said.