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Shougang Group to send Eagles soaring

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2017-09-29 09:14

Shougang Group to send Eagles soaring

Qin Xiaowen (left), CEO of Beijing Shougang Sports, Cao Weidong (center), chairman of the Chinese Ice Hockey Association and Sun Xuecai, director of the Beijing Sports Bureau, unveil the jersey of the Beijing Shougang Eagles on Thursday. CHINA DAILY

In the wake of the National Hockey League's first foray into the Chinese market, a collaborative development program is sending homegrown players to North America to hone their skills.

On the heels of last week's NHL China Games between the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings, the Chinese Ice Hockey Association on Thursday unveiled a five-year initiative with the Shougang Group to facilitate the sport's continued growth beyond the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Under the Hockey National Club Pioneers Program, Shougang Group, a State-owned enterprise that manages several professional sports clubs in Beijing, will work with the CIHA and the Beijing Sports Bureau to recruit young talent from domestic and overseas sources to build a multi-team club system named Beijing Shougang Eagles.

"The program is committed to building a more open and collaborative system for talent recruitment and development to assist hockey's revitalization leading up to the 2022 Olympics," said CIHA president Cao Weidong.

The program is the second of its kind after Kontinental Hockey League franchise Kunlun Red Star last year assembled a mixed team of Chinese and foreign athletes to play in the Russia-based league.

Both programs are products of an ambitious reform tasked with qualifying the host's obscure men's team for the 2022 Olympics and driving China's national women's squad, ranked No 18 in the world, to the podium.

Starting next August, the Eagles will send 20 boys and 20 girls every year to train in the US at youth clubs while receiving language and academic education at partner high schools through 2022, according to Jin Wei, chairman of Shougang Group.

After a prep year, the youngsters will play a 40-game annual schedule in selected US youth leagues to improve their skills while getting acclimated to the intensity.

Trainers from the NHL and minor league organizations in Canada and the US will provide technical support, together with fitness and nutrition professionals.

Qin Xiaowen, CEO of Shougang Sports, said she expects the overseas program to produce better results than the traditional State-run system.

"It's a new system involving all possible talent, expertise and resources to push China forward in the sport in the international context," said Qin, a former sports agent.

"It will for sure bear a better outcome than the previous way of keeping the small group of athletes within a closed and small circle to train on their own at home."

Following the example of Song Andong, China's first NHL draftee selected by the New York Islanders in 2015, a group of young players have been developing their game in the North American minor system, sent by their families at young age.

Song, who has committed to attending Cornell University next year, said only after playing youth hockey in Ontario, Canada, did he realize how high the level of competition was.

"The program is exciting as it will offer more kids the opportunities to begin from where I started," said the 20-year-old Beijing native.

The overseas training project will serve as a talent-collecting platform to call up North America-based athletes such as Song to join the national program and bond with their homegrown counterparts for the 2022 Olympics and beyond, said organizers.

"We hope this will provide more opportunities for these two groups to practice and compete together to generate the chemistry needed for them to bond as a whole for qualifying for the Games," said Sun Xuecai, director of the Beijing Sports Bureau.

Beijing plans to construct at least 70 standard rinks by 2020, up from the current 34, and establish its own higher-level league system based on a burgeoning junior league that now boasts about 3,000 players on 216 teams.

"The 2022 Games will not be the end; we are looking to grow enough talent for the sport to stand on its own after the Olympics in China," said Sun.

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