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Goals in sight as China laces up its skates

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2018-07-30 07:14
Chinese and Canadian teams compete in a Canadian Women's Hockey League match in Toronto. [Photo/Xinhua]

Ahead of 2022 Winter Olympics, ice hockey's profile growing along with increasing fan base

Despite the oppressive heat outside the winter sports facility, the ice rink at the Aozhong Sports Center in northeast Beijing was bustling with children hoping to learn the finer points of ice hockey during a summer camp.

If not for their parents yelling out encouragement in Chinese, the scene at the rink could just as well have been a youth ice hockey scrimmage in North America as the children's shouts, the coaches barking out instructions in English, and the sounds of skates cutting across the frozen surface echoed throughout the vast venue.

The eight-day youth clinic was hosted by venue investor ORG Packaging and the National Hockey League's Boston Bruins franchise to give young Chinese hockey players insights into developing skills for the most popular team sport in the Winter Olympics.

The clinic is part of a five-year partnership signed in 2016 between the Beijing company and the Bruins, which have won the Stanley Cup, the NHL championship, six times.

The NHL team is hoping to expand the winter sport in China from a grassroots level.

With China stepping up efforts to promote winter sports before the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, hockey's profile is rising along with the number of new fans.

Halfway through his 75-minute training session at the Bruins' camp, every item of Liu Yiqi's hockey gear, including his helmet, gloves and shoulder pads, was drenched in sweat as the 10-year-old skated with the puck up and down the rink to complete various drills.

Despite the occasional bump and bruise, Liu's expression conveyed the excitement and satisfaction he felt after being instructed by NHL trainers on the 1,800-square-meter rink.

"Sometimes I bruised my elbow or had my helmet rattled, but I am cool with it because I love playing hockey," said the fifth-grader from Tsinghua University Primary School.

"It was totally new for me at the beginning, but I've become addicted after playing for almost four years. It's helped me to become a tougher boy."

Organized by the Beijing Hockey Association, the Beijing Interschool Hockey League concluded its sixth season last month with a record 1,500 participants from 120 primary and secondary school teams competing in 326 games over one month.

A team from Qiqihar, Heilongjiang province, plays opposition from Harbin, the provincial capital, in a match in Beijing in May. [Photo/Xinhua]

The number of participants has increased by 20 percent year-on-year and organizers expect the numbers to keep rising.

"It's become a major event on the agenda of school sports circles in Beijing as more and more parents are embracing ice hockey, not just as an exercise but as an educational tool for all-around development," said Liu Ge, secretary-general of the association.

According to the Chinese Ice Hockey Association, more than 12,000 amateur youth players are registered with it, up from less than 2,000 in 2015, and more than 200 ice rinks had been built nationwide by the end of last year.

The country's commitment to drive a niche sport into the mainstream has been highlighted by President Xi Jinping's presence at a number of events to promote ice hockey and winter sports in general.

Cheered on by 7,000 spectators, Xi and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin-both avid sports fans-dropped the puck for a friendly match between the two countries' junior teams and watched the first period of the game at the Tianjin Gymnasium on June 8 during Putin's state visit to China.

Inspired by Xi, China is rolling out a national campaign to involve 300 million people in winter sports activities by 2022 through promotions at both elite and grassroots levels.

Ice hockey, the highest-profile team sport at the Winter Olympics, is at the core of the program to engage new fans on a mass scale even though it is still just a niche sport in China, said Ni Huizhong, director of the National Winter Sports Administrative Center in Beijing.

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