Sports / Hockey

Books and pucks form a winning combination

By Sun Xiaochen (China Daily) Updated: 2016-06-17 08:19

Books and pucks form a winning combination

Beijing-born teenager Song Andong (right) made history when he became the first Chinese player to be drafted by an NHL team. An increasing number of Chinese students are following in his footsteps and attempting to combine elite athletics and education. [Photo/Agencies]

Hockey player Song Andong is hoping that membership of the elite US schools athletics system will boost his chances of competing in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Sun Xiaochen reports.

Despite the academic and cultural challenges, a crop of young Chinese students are hoping to balance scholarly and athletic pursuits by navigating their way through North America's demanding school athletics system.

With the excitement of this year's NHL Stanley Cup Final, won by the Pittsburgh Penguins, still lingering, Beijing-born hockey player Song Andong has already set his eyes on a bigger stage - the 2022 Winter Olympics, which will be held in the Chinese capital.

Making history

In June last year, a month before Beijing was awarded the Winter Games, Song made history by becoming the first Chinese to be drafted into the North American professional hockey league when he was selected by the New York Islanders.

Hockey was virtually unknown in China during his childhood, and the 19-year-old attributes his potential NHL caliber to the long journey he has undertaken in school hockey programs in Canada and the United States since the age of 10.

"It wasn't until I moved to Canada that I realized just what an exciting sport hockey is. All these years of playing while studying overseas have made me who I am today, and the Beijing 2022 Olympics has provided a target for me to work hard for," said Song, who began playing the niche sport at age 6 on a small rink at a shopping mall in downtown Beijing.

In 2007, when his game developed to the level where he needed advanced coaching, Song moved to Canada, and then to the US in 2012. Supported by his wealthy family, he studied at private schools while playing hockey at high school level.

After being drafted, Song spent a gap year playing at the Phillips Academy, a prep school with a strong hockey tradition, in Andover, Massachusetts. He played 27 games as a defenseman for Andover in the New England Prep School Ice Hockey Association, and he's now looking to win a hockey scholarship to an Ivy League college.

"Even if you get drafted, playing pro is still a pretty difficult thing. I am willing to do my best at college to get stronger and better. Hopefully, they (NY Islanders) will think I am ready to make that jump after college," he said.

The Ivy League is a collegiate athletic conference comprising eight top-ranked institutions, including Princeton, Yale and Harvard in the northeastern US, who regularly play in Division 1 of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Founded in 1906, the NCAA oversees more than 460,000 student athletes - who compete in 24 different sports across three divisions - at approximately 1,200 higher-education institutions in the US and Canada.

Schools in Divisions 1 and 2 offer athletics scholarships to students who excel at sports. However, the candidates must prove that they have the academic qualifications to attend the college, in addition to providing proof of their athletic ability, including videos, results from previous competitions and athletic assessment reports.

Unlike China's State-run sports cultivation system, where young talents undertake rigorous full-time training in sports schools or national camps, but receive little academic education, the US school athletics system offers an attractive way for young hopefuls to manage both disciplines, according to Wang Li, a professor of sports management at Beijing Sport University.

"It's not one way or the other, like in China, where kids have only one choice - sports or study - at early age," he said.

"Athletic development is an instrumental part of US education, from elementary to college level, which greatly values the students' participation in mainstream sporting culture on campus. That's why it attracts sporting talents from around the world to pursue their athletic goals in addition to academic studies."

Liu Ge, vice-president of the Beijing Hockey Association, said that Song's success has inspired more than 30 teenage Chinese players - including this year's potential NHL draftees Ying Rudi and Zhong Wei - who have been studying and playing in secondary programs in Canada and the US. They are forming a small but growing pool of talent for China's hockey program for the 2022 Games.

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