US guns to skate with China in Asian Hockey League
By Lei Lei
Updated: 2007-09-21 07:02

Spectators will have the chance to watch North American National Hockey League players playing for China in the upcoming Asian Ice Hockey League after the Chinese Ice Hockey Association inked a cooperation deal with NHL team San Jose Sharks.

Three coaches and five players from the Sharks will join the Chinese team to compete in the Asian Ice Hockey League this season, which starts this weekend in Japan.

"It is the first time we get the support from the NHL and we can say that they came to support us in our most difficult period," Chinese Winter Sports Administrative Center (CWSC) vice director Lan Li said.

"We hope the cooperation with high-level teams could raise our competitive level greatly and let our team rank higher than last in the league."

The CWSC decided to enter just one team instead of two in the Asian League this season after recruiting the best players in China and the Californian outfit.

As well as the Chinese Sharks team, the AHL will feature another six teams: four from Japan and two from South Korea.

The US team is keen to help ice hockey's expansion in China and Asia.

"The first reason why we came to China is that we desire to see ice hockey grow in China, to be as popular as basketball, soccer and Olympics right now," San Jose Sharks CEO Gregory Jamison said. We want to see kids of a young age skate and grow up to skate and to play ice hockey.

"We want to see the Chinese men's team have great success in the Asian League. We are helping with coaches and players to hopefully leave a great foundation at least for the coming season."

Jamison said he hoped the sporting exchange would be extended to include other national teams.

"We also want to see the Chinese men's and women's, the U18 and U20 teams have great success in national and international competitions," Jamison said. "We control three ice rinks in US, we want to see more ice rinks to be built throughout China."

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) applauded the invitation extended to the NHL, the most professional league in the world.

"Before I came here, I feel like a dream," IIHF vice-president Shoichi Tomita said.

"For Asian ice hockey players, NHL is another world.

"If all teams come in same level, people will be interested to see the games since we don't know who will win. It's not only for you, for us (all the Asian players), the dream come true."

The NHL imports are not the first foreign players recruited by China.

In the 2005-06 season, three players and a coach from Sweden's Nordic Vikings team joined two Chinese teams to help them lift their playing standards.

But the cooperation scheme didn't bear fruit as the national team still languished last in the league.

"The Nordic team is supported only by an investment company but no professional club, so it only sent some young players to our teams, which was not very helpful," Lan said.

"Since San Jose Sharks is a high-level professional club, we hope to learn more about its managing concept and system."

Besides the exchange program with national sides, San Jose Sharks is also considering offering guidance to China's younger players.

"We believe the only way China will be successful is the youth program," Jamison said. "We will discuss with the Chinese Ice Hockey Association for a program to help youth to start playing ice hockey in China.

"We are looking for ways for junior program. It may take some time, but it may eventually happen."

(China Daily 09/21/2007 page22)