China’s ice hockey program, which aims to achieve breakthroughs at the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022, has expanded its search for talent to summer events and also overseas to boost medal prospects.
The Chinese Ice Hockey Association is pulling out all the stops to deepen its talent pool through approaches that include seeking help from its summer counterpart in field hockey.
As part of a national cross-event talent development program, the association has formed eight trial teams based on athletes primarily selected from field hockey after they passed physical and skills tests. The tests have been held since March last year.
The similarity in puck-handling skills and basic conditioning such as the endurance and speed of field hockey players made the cross-sport experiment technically feasible, but they need more time for their skating and coordination on ice, said Cao Weidong, chairman of the association.
“They’ve made solid progress both on and off the ice. Their confidence and expectations of eventually making it on the big stage are high,” Cao said after signing a partnership agreement with Shougang Sports from Beijing this month to provide funding and logistical support for the program.
“Still, they have to improve their skating skills and understanding of the sport a lot, and need more tests in a competitive situation.”
However, this approach has raised doubts since being adopted, as observers claim that the essence of ice hockey in teamwork, experience and match play takes years to evolve in a highly competitive environment.
During the national championships in May, the lopsided 60-0 victory by the women’s team from Harbin in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang over a team from Guangdong province, underlined the concerns voiced over the program.
Guangdong is a new team comprising players transferred from summer sports in the warm southern province.
Cao said the cross-sport experiment will follow the development patterns for ice hockey, will not be rushed and has set its sights beyond the 2022 Olympics.
“We are not expecting quick results, but are hoping to brighten the future of the sport,” he said.
Meanwhile, the sport’s governing body and organizations involved have been stepping up efforts to combine home-produced and overseas Chinese ice hockey players through a groundbreaking naturalization program.
The program, launched early last year, targets young players born overseas, mainly in hockey-strong North American countries, with Chinese ancestry who are willing to apply to become eligible for the Chinese team in international competitions.
It is the first time a Chinese national sports program has opened its doors to overseas talent.
As the Chinese Ice Hockey Association’s partner in this program, multi-team club Kunlun Red Star hosted the latest Olympic tryout camp in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, in May.
A total of 22 players of Chinese descent from Canada and the United States joined 38 Chinese from Heilongjiang, the country’s traditional winter sports power, for physical tests, skills evaluation and practice games supervised by US coach Rob Morgan, who has two decades of coaching experience in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
It was the first trial camp held in China after Kunlun Red Star and the association organized similar selection events in the Canadian cities of Toronto and Vancouver in June last year, drafting dozens of overseas-based athletes into the men’s and women’s national talent pools.
According to International Ice Hockey Federation rules, to be eligible to represent an adopted country internationally, male players must play for at least two seasons before the Olympics in the adopted country’s national competitions after being issued with a passport by that country. Female players need one season under the same rules.
The association has said China’s passport-issuing policy will facilitate the Olympic program.
Bolstered by draftees from these camps, Kunlun Red Star’s women’s team from Shenzhen finished second in its debut season in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in April — evidence of the success the experimental program has had in merging cross-border talent.
Leah Lum, a fourth-generation Chinese Canadian who took part in the Shenzhen camp, said the program offers new opportunities.
“Growing up in Canada, it’s always a dream to go to the Olympics as a hockey player. If it’s not for Canada, China is a natural choice,” said Lum, a graduate of the University of Connecticut’s NCAA Division 1 program.
“Four years is going to go by very fast. It’s also a long process, but we are willing to do whatever it takes to be able to play in the Olympics by sticking around and putting in the work,” said Lum, who has scored 42 goals in 149 games for the UConn Huskies from 2014-18.