Day: November 23, 2016

Edmonton’s Shannon Szabados returns to Canadian women’s hockey team, but keeps a toe in men’s game

By Donna Spencer – Edmonton Journal

Shannon Szabados says she could write a book about her departure from the Peoria Rivermen, but the goaltender would rather discuss her return to the Canadian women’s hockey team.

The 30-year-old from Edmonton was among the 22 women named to Canada’s roster Wednesday for a two-game series against the United States in December. The archrivals meet in Plymouth, Mich., on Dec. 17 and again in Sarnia, Ont., on Dec. 19.

Szabados hasn’t been on the ice with the Canadian women since Feb. 20, 2014, when her 27 saves helped Canada win the Olympic women’s hockey final in Sochi, Russia.

 She’s played men’s pro hockey in Southern Professional Hockey League since then and most recently with the Rivermen.

The two-time Olympic gold medallist has spent the majority of her hockey career playing with and against men. Szabados knows the adjustments she must make upon her return to women’s hockey.

“They’re pretty different games for a goalie,” she said Wednesday on a conference call.

“For the girls, I find they hold onto the puck a little bit more. It’s a little more puck possession. The guys never like it when I say this, but the girls play a little bit more of a smarter game. The men, it’s a little more run and gun. Where they would take a shot, maybe the girls would take a pass, so as a goalie, it’s a little bit more patience.

“One of the big things is tracking. The puck comes off the stick a little bit differently for a girl than it does the guys.”

She spent the last two seasons with the SPHL’s Columbus Cottonmouths. Her overall record was 20-20-6 and she carried a save percentage over .900 each year.

Szabados started this season with the Rivermen. She and another goaltender were released after Peoria’s opening weekend in October.

She played parts of two games with a goals-against average of 6.10 and a save percentage of .792.

Rivermen coach Jean-Guy Trudel told CBC Sports after releasing her that he signed Szabados in a “package deal” to get defenceman Chris Neilson to sign as well. Trudel called the two players’ relationship “cancerous” on the team.

“They’re pretty different games for a goalie,” she said Wednesday on a conference call.

“For the girls, I find they hold onto the puck a little bit more. It’s a little more puck possession. The guys never like it when I say this, but the girls play a little bit more of a smarter game. The men, it’s a little more run and gun. Where they would take a shot, maybe the girls would take a pass, so as a goalie, it’s a little bit more patience.

“One of the big things is tracking. The puck comes off the stick a little bit differently for a girl than it does the guys.”

She spent the last two seasons with the SPHL’s Columbus Cottonmouths. Her overall record was 20-20-6 and she carried a save percentage over .900 each year.

Szabados started this season with the Rivermen. She and another goaltender were released after Peoria’s opening weekend in October.

She played parts of two games with a goals-against average of 6.10 and a save percentage of .792.

Rivermen coach Jean-Guy Trudel told CBC Sports after releasing her that he signed Szabados in a “package deal” to get defenceman Chris Neilson to sign as well. Trudel called the two players’ relationship “cancerous” on the team.

Szabados expects to split her time between Calgary and Edmonton. She’ll supplement ice time with the Chiefs by skating with her former men’s college team in Edmonton.

The Chiefs are in the five-team Chinook League, which includes several former pro and university players.

“They had an opening, asked me if I wanted to come out skate,” Szabados said. “I figured it would be a good opportunity for me to get back on the ice, get into some game action and get prepared for the December series.”

Canada’s roster for the December series includes 14 players who won Olympic gold in Sochi. The Americans have won six of the last seven world titles.

Pan American Movement

By National Teams of Ice Hockey

Their is a Ice Hockey movement afoot in the Pan American region, that includes North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean to form a American Ice Hockey Confederation in two or three years.

This project is being lead by Mr. Hector Iannicelli is the Argentinian Ice Hockey Association’s President and
The Mexicans Ice hockey federation’s President

The first step is to start conversations and to invite to countries the next Pan American Ice Hockey Tournament in 2017, this process has already begun. Canada and The United states are welcome to join the tournament with with amateurs’ teams.
There is also been conversation to to bring back the Pan American Winter Games (4 years). The Mexicans federation’s President has already started conversations with ODEPA and the ideas was very well received.

Here is some History on the Winter Pan American games:

There have been attempts to hold Winter Pan American Games throughout the history of the games, but these have had little success. An initial attempt to hold winter events was made by the organizers of the 1951 Pan American Games in Buenos Aires, who planned to stage winter events later in the year but dropped the idea due to lack of interest. Reliable winter snow in the Americas is limited to two countries, the United States and Canada.
Andean winter weather is often fickle, and higher elevation areas in South America with annual snow often lack the infrastructure to host major sporting events. Another difficulty is that the Americas cover two hemispheres, which creates scheduling issues related to reverse seasons.

Lake Placid, New York tried to organize Winter Games in 1959 but, again, not enough countries expressed interest. The plans were eventually cancelled.

In 1988, members of PASO voted to hold the first Pan American Winter Games at Las Leñas, Argentina in September 1989. It was further agreed that Winter Games would be held every four years. Lack of snow however, forced the postponement of the games until September 16–22, 1990  when only eight countries sent 97 athletes to Las Leñas. Of that total, 76 were from just three countries of Argentina, Canada, and the United States. Weather was unseasonably warm and again there was little snow, so only three Alpine Skiing events – the Slalom, Giant Slalom, and Super G were staged. The United States and Canada won all 18 medals.

PASO awarded the second Pan American Winter Games to Santiago, Chile for 1993. The United States warned that it would not take part unless a full schedule of events was held. The Santiago organizing committee eventually gave up on planning the Games after the United States Olympic Committee declined to participate, and the idea has not been revived since.

China Wants to Be the Next Hockey Heavyweight

china ice hockey

By Vice Sports

There is no Chinese word for “puck.” In fact, the most literal translation for “bingqiu”—Chinese for hockey—is “ice ball.” The Chinese are about as familiar with hockey as Wayne Gretzky is with badminton.

Yet off the West 4th Ring of Beijing on Sept. 5, 2016, the Kunlun Red Star were taking the ice for their home debut at LeSports Center. The Red Star are the newest franchise of the Russian-based KHL, thought to be the second-best league in the world after the NHL. In other words, what were they doing here?

All the signs that this is a major sporting event were evident: Throbbing light show. A red carpet. Pledging allegiance to a jumbotron.

There were also PA announcers who jumped from Chinese, Russian, to occasionally, English. Screaming red and yellow—surprise!—Kunlun jerseys. Pregame hullabaloo capped off with remarks from Xi Jinping, China’s president.

China wants to flex again, as it did during the 2008 Summer Olympics. This time, the country is training to be a hockey heavyweight. Like Russia, the United States, or Canada. Really.

China has the capital. And right now, it has the motivation: In just six short years, all eyes will once again be on Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

China, as host country, will have a chance to field squads for both the men’s and women’s ice hockey tournaments. In arguably the Games’ most prestigious event, the hunger to be able to stand toe-to-toe with the best in the world is naturally greater. Not that far behind, also, is the specter of the “sick man of Asia”, which has dogged the Middle Kingdom’s last century.

But how can China transform its IIHF 37th-ranked men’s national team, which plays literally three rungs below the elite, into a unit with even a puncher’s chance in 2022?

If anybody can help China up the ladder quickly, it might be Russia. After all, it was the Soviets who, less than a decade after seriously taking up the sport, knocked Canada off 7-2 to win the 1954 World Championships, ushering in over three decades of international ice hockey domination.

At Kunlun, both the general manager and head coach are Russians. Their first “pupils” are four Chinese skaters and one goalie on the Red Star roster. Between Tianxiang Xia, Guanhua Wang, and Shengrong Xia, they’ve seen about four minutes of ice time a game through 31 regular-season contests. Game-ready, they’re not.

“You’re almost taking two or three steps up coming from where they played to this league,” observed ex-Washington Capital Sean Collins, who’s enjoying his first season in the KHL.

Even the head of that class, Rudi Ying and Zach Yuen, have averaged just three and 12 minutes, respectively, of ice time per game. They’re among the squad’s least-used regulars.

“They didn’t see the kind of hockey we have in the KHL and NHL,” explained GM Vladimir Krechin. “When they play against good hockey, they’re going to grow up.”

For now, that means more practice than game time.

Kunlun team media officer Oleg Vinokurov cautioned, however, that the Chinese wouldn’t be subjected to Soviet-style training, “We understand that the Soviet hockey school, Soviet principles, will not work completely today.

“We have a coach who worked a long time in Finland. So he combines Soviet and European schools.”

That would be Vladimir Yurzinov, Jr., son of the Soviet hockey great, who stressed, “The Chinese players have to transform from just liking hockey to professional hockey.

“For the immature player, hockey is enjoyment. For the professional, it’s real work. It’s a job.”

So for the 18-year-old Ying, who skated in a mid-level Canadian junior league last year, he’s gone from the playground to the coal mine. He gets it, though.

“Just skill isn’t enough. You have to compete.”

Ying believes most of the gap between the Chinese and the best of the world is mental. “The lack of skill is not the problem—the problem is in the way they see the game, the way they play the game, the way the game comes to them.” He thinks his brethren approach hockey as a skill sport, and not a contact one.

Guess what’s not going to work for a hockey lifer like Krechin? “When they start to play and have more experience and they have more contact, they’ll see the contact won’t kill them,” predicted the former Philadelphia Flyers draft pick. “If they’re not going to play contact, they’re not going to play.”

Clashing Russian and Chinese hockey ideals may have resulted in the recent dismissal of assistant coach Guofeng Wu. While nobody will speak on the record about what happened to the former national team member, hired by the Red Star to work with the club’s Chinese skaters, it’s clear that Wu wasn’t up to the Russian standard.

Vancouver-born Yuen knows something about that high standard. The former Winnipeg Jets draft pick has appeared in the AHL, essentially the NHL’s Triple-A level. He also once played with Edmonton Oliers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first-overall pick of the 2011 NHL draft. He put it succinctly when asked what the Chinese could learn from the Russians, “I think everything.”

Both Ying and Yuen, difficult as it is to project the 2022 Chinese Olympic team this far out, look like sure things. One is Kunlun’s youngest player, the other’s career was floundering in North America. In principle, they’re going to be the trailblazing graduates of China’s first contact with high-level hockey.

But frankly, six years isn’t enough time, even if more North Americans like Yuen represent Team China.

Krechin expects it will take at least 10-15 years for China to reach even top-15 IIHF status, with the likes of competitive, but far from intimidating national teams like Austria and Germany.

But as Krechin reminds us, “they do everything fast.”

Ten to fifteen years will certainly be too long to catch the 2022 wave. But as we speak, there is a hockey mini-boom in China.

There are over 400 full-sized rinks scheduled to be built by 2020. These surfaces will help house the rapidly-growing number of children from affluent families getting into the sport. In 2008, there were around 300 hockey players at the elementary level, a number that has climbed to roughly 3,000 today, according to Longmou Li, last year’s general manager of China’s Under-18 national team.

“I heard that in some districts every kid is going to [be required to] learn skiing or skating,” revealed IOC member Yang Yang.

That’s a far cry from 2005, when Chris Collins landed in China. “[Hockey] suffered a terrible vacuum,” observed the former San Jose Sharks color commentator. “In a country of 1.4 billion people, having a 1,000 or less play a sport, it’s not really a sport.”

Collins was laying the groundwork for San Jose’s pioneering investment in Chinese professional hockey, the China Sharks. They competed in the relatively low-level Asia League Ice Hockey for two seasons, from 2007-09.

“Maybe three rinks in Beijing [back then], and now there’s what, 15?” he recalled. “In Shanghai, there was one rink. I think it was a mall rink.”

There were 200 kids registered to play hockey in Shanghai three years ago, according to Yang, but that number has at least tripled now.

Some of these kids will fit right into the hockey academy that the Red Star are opening. China has also enlisted the aid of the Czech Republic. “In this way, we used to teach Russians in the 1950s. You know the outcome,” Czech Olympic Committee President Jiri Kejval told Mladá fronta Dnes.

The NHL has taken notice once again, too. Last summer, three NHL teams (the Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, and New York Islanders) held youth hockey camps in China. This year, the Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, and Montreal Canadiens joined the fray.

The league also hired former King Kevin Westgarth as vice president of business development and international affairs, specifically to grow the sport overseas. He told The Hockey News, “Last year, we had our first Chinese player drafted into the NHL in Andong Song. That will hopefully be a little bit of a catalyst in igniting some passion.

“Especially with the Winter Olympics coming along, it’s an investment. I think that would be in the league’s best interests and I think it would be in their best interests, as well.”

For the last three seasons, state channel CCTV has broadcasted NHL games. According to Li, who is also the station’s director of hockey programming, regular-season ratings have increased 150 percent over that time span, from about 400,000 to 1 million. For Game 4 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, about 6 million viewers tuned in; in the United States, 5.407 million viewers was the series high.

While the viewership numbers represent only a fraction of the country’s 1.3 billion population, those mushrooming numbers will help President Xi live up to his promise.

When Beijing was still campaigning for the 2022 Games, Xi asserted, “It will inspire over 300 million Chinese to participate in winter sports if we win.”

That’s a lofty figure for a nation which has traditionally emphasized summer sports over winter. China didn’t even win its first Winter Olympics gold until 2002, courtesy of Yang Yang, and its highest medal count in the Winter Games is just 11—set in Vancouver in 2010. Meanwhile, China pocketed 100 alone in the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

Of course, I doubt anybody is really tracking Xi’s “300 million.” But there’s also no doubt that the Chinese men’s ice hockey program has the full support of the state.

Case in point: Both Xi and Vladimir Putin were on hand to witness the official signing of Kunlun into the KHL last June. When was the first time Barack Obama and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau attended a hockey-related event together?

And while Xi and Putin were just a little preoccupied during the Red Star’s home opener with the G20 summit, the presence of both was felt during the pregame ceremony.

“Every road started from the first small step,” declared Russia’s deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich, perhaps referencing Xi’s One Belt, One Road engagement policy. “This is a starting point for a whole new development model to grow Chinese hockey.”

Following Dvorkovich, Xi issued this statement through director of sports Liu Peng: “Ice hockey exchanges between the two countries will help China raise the standard of the game and better prepare for the 2022 Winter Olympics.”

Speaking of preparation, or a lack of, it was a minor miracle the Kunlun Red Star’s first home game was played at all.

While the KHL’s expansion into China was announced last December, it wasn’t made official until late June. Kunlun’s first practice, held weeks later, consisted of only five skaters. They weren’t even sure where they were playing their home debut until about a week before the game, as LeSports Center had already scheduled a concert for Sept. 5. Rumours were rampant that the Red Star would be forced to premiere in Shanghai.

As for the game itself, official attendance was 7,832 for an arena which seats 14,000 for hockey. To their credit, it was an enthusiastic mob. Just a couple minutes in, speedy Kunlun winger Oleg Yashin rushed the puck through the neutral zone, backing off the Admiral Vladivostok defenders, creating a surge in the crowd… and he dumped it in, which was exactly the right thing to do because the Red Star were on the penalty kill. They’re still picking up the beats of the sport here.

Shortly thereafter, ex-New Jersey Devils blueliner Anssi Salmela rang up the Red Star’s first-ever home goal. A goal is a goal in any language, and the crowd roared.

Cries of “jiayou,” which literally means “fill up with gas,” punctuated the action. Behind me, a vociferous fan shrilled “Motherfucker” with bloodcurdling zeal and, most importantly, did it at the appropriate time. He really had me at “Icing!” though, which he shouted at his friend, Fisher Yu, who wore a “Kiss Me I’m Irish & I Play Hockey” T-shirt. As it turns out, Zhong Cong Wu and Yu were among Beijing’s earliest recreational ice hockey players.

Not even halfway in, Kunlun had raced out to a 5-1 lead. If anything, the Red Star were actually spoiling their supporters.

The stands had already emptied out when Salmela potted another goal in the final frame. The tepid applause indicated that they were pretty tired of this whole scoring thing.

My attention was wandering, too, and I saw what seemed like a mirage at first: It was a little girl wearing a Sidney Crosby jersey in Beijing. Her father, Song Dai, proudly declared that Demi was one of about 20 girls who play hockey in the capital. They had been in Canada for a youth tournament during the Stanley Cup Final, which explains the Crosby love.

After Kunlun’s 6-3 triumph, former Maple Leafs forward Alexei Ponikarovsky echoed a popular postgame sentiment, “I hope as we win more games, more people will show up.”

But clearly, there was something in the air here. There is a small but passionate hockey fan base. More kids than ever are playing the game. That said, it’s a leap of faith. China, the KHL, and the Red Star are hoping, “if you build it, they will come.”

“You can see the air is a little bit different here,” joked Kunlun captain Janne Jalasvaara. Of course, he was talking about something else.

But what’s also different about China? It can afford an expensive leap of faith. It can afford money-losing crowds. For a nation not famous for it, though, it’s hard to say if China will have the necessary patience.

The infrastructure which China is investing in can foster a world-class national team, but it probably won’t happen soon. After 2022, will the government still care? Or will the dream of a Chinese hockey power be forgotten, just another deserted Olympic edifice?

“Government money is big right now. But after 2022, it may not be as much,” admitted Li. “China needs a self-sustaining hockey system, so government money doesn’t matter.”

Yang concurred. “In China, the sports system has been changing. Before, it was more government funding which drives the sport. In the future, from my point of view, it’s going to be more market-driven.”

The two-time gold medalist is a believer, though. “After 2022, the sport can grow by itself. Hockey has the potential.

“It’s popular with the kids.”

But not popular enough, at least not yet. After their Beijing opening, the Red Star migrated to Feiyang Skating Center in Shanghai for home games. LeSports Center, which was pre-booked, will welcome them back in mid-December.

Since the move, Kunlun has averaged just 1,103 over 14 appearances in Shanghai, amidst rumors that the KHL is looking to contract some teams.

A mere 721 witnessed history on Oct. 27 at Feiyang, when Yuen became the first Chinese player to score in KHL history, re-directing a Tomas Marcinko pass through Amur Khabarovsk goaltender Juha Metsola en route to a 1-0 triumph.

To score a goal like that, it’s not only something for me,” said Yuen, whose parents were born in China, “it means a lot more than that for Chinese hockey in the future.”

It’ll take more than the occasional goal to grow hockey in China, though. The kids could use a role model. In Yuen, Kunlun may have just unearthed one. After averaging under six minutes a game in his first 10 contests, his playing time has increased significantly, to about 15 minutes a game over his last 21. He hasn’t been a star, but being a regular on a playoff-calibre KHL team is certainly something to look up to.

The blueliner attributed much of his progress to the Russian and European-trained coaching staff, “They’ve really helped me adjust to the different of game,” he said. “In European hockey, there’s a lot less leeway with stickwork and holding and that kind of stuff [than North American hockey]. Defending is very different. Especially on such big ice.

“Our team has a lot of high-end skill players, few guys who have played in the NHL. Getting to practice and play with them has really got me ready.”

When you’re trying to pull off the seemingly impossible and compete with the world’s greatest hockey superpowers, every possible hope matters. For Team China, a Chinese hockey player’s rapid improvement because of the KHL is no small feat.

Or as Yuen himself offered, “Every country has to start somewhere.”