China is set to host the next Winter Olympics, in 2022. After some initial uncertainty, it has now been confirmed that The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) is to allow China to enter both a men’s and a women’s team at the tournament. This, among other factors is spurring the rise of ice hockey in China.
The increasing popularity, supported by the country’s rising middle class and their ever-expanding pockets, has seen rinks spring up across the country and attracted the attention of some of the sport’s biggest names.
Former NHL (National Hockey League) star Wayne Gretsky said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the level of ice hockey in China and by the potential of the sport to grow in the country. The NHL China Games will also continue to showcase the world’s top players to audiences in China for six of the next eight seasons.
Ice hockey is seen to have high barriers to entry as a participation sport. It’s a full-contact sport, so players are required to wear lots of protective gear, as well as purchase their own sticks, skates and jerseys. This initial spend puts many parents off, but the rising wealth of China’s elite means that more youngsters than ever are donning their ice skates in the hope of becoming the next big name in the sport.
There are now a few thousand kids playing ice hockey in Beijing alone.
The rise of the first Chinese-born player drafted into the NHL demonstrates the level of investment required for children to succeed in the sport. Andong Song’s parents moved him to Toronto when he was just 10-years-old, to give him the best chance of pursuing a future in the sport. Song is committed to play for Cornell University later this year, after being drafted 172nd overall in 2015.
China’s men’s ice hockey team have never tasted any kind of success in a top-level tournament, however its women’s team finished fourth in the first Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament in 1998. They also competed at the Games in 2002 and 2010.
China has one men’s club team, Kunlun Red Star, which competes in the highly-competitive Russia-based KHL (Kontinental Hockey League). The country also has two teams in Russia’s second-tier SHL (Supreme Hockey League) and a team in Russia’s Junior Hockey League.
For the women, Kunlun Red Star and a further Chinese team competed in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League last season. China also sent a girl’s youth team to compete in the US.
Eyes on the future for ice hockey in China…
What do you make of China’s chances at the 2022 Games and the future for ice hockey in China? One thing’s for certain, the sport has huge potential to expand in the country and all eyes will be on the youngsters looking to make a name for themselves in the coming years!