By Lucas Aykroyd – IIHF.com
The Chinese women’s national team is on a two-pronged mission. They’re eager to qualify for both the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, Korea – and even more excited about the 2022 Olympics in their capital city, Beijing. So where better to prepare by playing some exhibition games than Canada, the motherland of hockey?
On 23rd October, the Chinese downed the Pacific Steelers 7-2 at the Richmond Olympic Oval, an Olympic venue about a half-hour drive south of downtown Vancouver. Xin He and Xin Fang staked the visitors to a 2-0 first period lead and the Lady Dragons never looked back.
“I thought it was fun,” said 17-year-old Steelers captain Amy Potomak, who won U18 Women’s World Championship silver with Canada in St. Catharines, Ontario in January. “It was a really cool experience playing against Team China. It was definitely faster than what we’re used to, and a different style of game, especially on the big ice. I think it’s a good opportunity for everyone to see what the national team level is like, how quick it is, and get that experience. I think it’s really motivating for a lot of younger players on our team.”
This was the final installment in the five-game “Harmony Through Hockey” exhibition series in Metro Vancouver between China and local clubs. China lost 4-1 to the University of British Columbia (UBC) Thunderbirds on 17 October, beat the Richmond Devils 2-1 on 18 October, blanked South Fraser TNT 3-0 on 20 October, and defeated the South Coast Women’s Hockey League (SCHWL) Selects 3-1 on 22 October.
The series was organized by the 2015-founded Canada China Sports Foundation.
At UBC, the Chinese players also got an on-ice training session with ex-NHL stars Cliff Ronning and Glenn Anderson. Ronning told CBC News: “The skating ability is amazing with the team, and they’re having fun out there. We’re trying to bring that Canadian passion to the team and a little skill set on shooting. They have great speed. They handle the puck well. It’s just the shooting side of it.”
Much work remains to be done on the current Olympic quest. The Chinese currently sit 16th in the IIHF Women’s World Ranking, behind Latvia and ahead of Hungary. China has not competed at a top-level Women’s World Championship since finishing ninth in 2009 and getting relegated to Division I. The last Olympic appearance for the Chinese women was here in Vancouver. They finished seventh in 2010.
Current head coach Rick Seeley previously coached women’s hockey at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. It’s a challenge rounding up talent. There are less than 300 registered female players in China, whose population is 1.3 billion.
“It’s going to take a few years, but I think we’ve got the right pieces in place,” said Seeley, a Toronto native. “We’re very young. Our average age is about 19. They’ve come a long way in the year I’ve been with them. I’m pretty excited about the prospects.”
The national team needs worthy successors to former captain Sun Rui, who played at two Olympics and eight Women’s Worlds from 1999 to 2013, and goalie Guo Hong, who was nicknamed “The Great Wall of China” for backstopping her nation to its best finishes ever at the top level, fourth place at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and at the Women’s Worlds in 1994 and 1997.
“We’ve got great leadership,” said Seeley. “Our captain, Baiwei Yu, is our oldest player at 27. The others are mostly 17 to 24. Our top line chipped in the most. Menying Zhang and Minghui Kong are a force. And Xin Fang and Naiyuan Tian on the next line are pretty awesome. All five of our blueliners are playing really solid. If we move the puck like that, we’ll have success for sure.”
China’s next step toward the 2018 Olympics comes at a qualification tournament in Cergy-Pontoise, France from 15 to 18 December. China will face host France, Latvia, and another team to be determined in the six-game round robin. The nation that finishes first will compete in the Final Olympic Qualification phase with two tournaments held in Japan and Switzerland in February 2017.
“I think we have to make tonight’s effort consistent,” said Seeley. “That’s been an issue with us in the past. But we’re building. It’s very encouraging.”
As the site of the final “Harmony Through Hockey” game, the Richmond Olympic Oval was spectacularly fitting in more ways than one. More than 50 percent of Richmond’s population identifies as Chinese. Nearby Alexandra Road, nicknamed “Food Street,” offers more than 200 Asian restaurants in a three-block span, and huge Asian malls grace No. 3 Road.
Known for its spectacular wood wave roof, the Oval hosted long-track speed skating during the 2010 Olympics. Today, the 33,630-square metre venue next to the Fraser River has been converted into a state-of-the-art public fitness centre. It has two Olympic-sized rinks, six hardwood sport courts, and a 200-metre running track, plus a climbing wall, zumba classes, and state-of-the-art fitness equipment. The Richmond Olympic Experience museum showcases Winter Games memorabilia and thrilling interactive exhibits from hockey target shooting to a bobsleigh simulation.
Now, the Chinese women must find a way to thrill their fans by clinching a berth at the next Winter Games. That would be another big step on the road to 2022. Seeley said the Chinese government is on board.
“They’re very focused on it,” said Seeley. “That was one reason they invested in the women’s program, more so than the men’s, starting last year when they got the bid. They want to invest a lot in development too, which is lacking a bit in China in women’s hockey. I feel nothing but support.”