By Ed Willes – The Province
Stan Smyl arrived before the appointed hour and was taking in the sights and sounds in Kowloon when he saw his old friend wading through the crowd.
He was older, to be sure, but the frame, the presence, were unmistakable. The setting? That was a little different, but the man Smyl had known for over 40 years had always wanted to find his place in the game.
He just found it in another world. Literally.
“It was Bubba,” said Smyl, the Canucks’ director of player development.
And Barry Beck was home.
Beck, the legendary defenceman of a bygone era in the NHL, has spent the last decade in Hong Kong, where he’s become the driving force behind the Hong Kong Academy of Ice Hockey and, by extension, the nascent hockey program in the Chinese territory. Starting with 10 registered players in the metropolis of seven million, the academy has grown to more than 500 players with age-group programs ranging from five- and six-year-olds to high school teams and, ta-da, the Hong Kong national team that competes in Division III at the IIHF world championship.
Beck has since stepped down as the national team head coach, but last spring he took them to the world championship in, of course, Istanbul, where they finished fifth in their six-team pool, largely because Georgia was disqualified for an eligibility transgression.
He’s also retired from the full-contact men’s league — please consider the image of the former blue-line terror playing in a Hong Kong recreation league — because a) his body couldn’t take the grind, b) he has five stints in his heart and c) he was suspended “a couple of times.”
“My office told me maybe it was time to quit,” Beck says in a phone conversation from Hong Kong. “I think they were doing me a favour.”
“I went through different stages in my life, but to me it was all growing experiences to take me where I am now. It was a different era (in his playing days) and a lot of things were around. But they never altered my decision-making.
“I’m still competitive and I get to coach kids in a competitive environment. I think we’re building something here and I always think of Ernie (McLean, who coached Beck and Smyl on the fabled New Westminster Bruins team of the late ’70s). He did so much for us as players and men, I try to use the same things he taught us.”
Beck was brought to Hong Kong 10 years ago through a Vancouver connection with Thomas Wu, a local businessman who was interested in starting the academy. His position has since taken him all over Asia, including the Chinese hockey hot-bed in Harbin, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. He’s also travelled to Russia, the Czech Republic and taken the national team to Luxembourg. This summer he’s taking a group from the academy to Boston University, where they’ll rub elbows with the 40 or so NHLers who train at BU.
“I think about it,” Beck says of his long-strange trip. “Growing up in Vancouver, I mean I’d go to Chinatown, but I went to Templeton high school and I never thought of Asia as a destination.
“To me, this has been more of a spiritual journey.”
Still, that journey has placed Beck at a critical moment in the game’s development in Asia. The Winter Olympics are set for South Korea in 2018, where former NHL defenceman Jim Paek has helped build a competitive program, and Beijing for 2022.
The Canucks and the Los Angeles Kings are scheduled to hold training camps in Beijing this fall and play a couple of exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai, where the Anschutz Entertainment Group owns the Mercedes-Benz Arena. AEG owns the Kings and Beck has talked to his old Kings teammate Luc Robitaille, now the Kings’ president of business operations, about growing the game in China. The Boston Bruins are also running youth programs in Beijing. The Islanders and their owner, Charles Wang, are involved in Harbin. Then there’s the Canucks’ connection.
“The hockey world is changing,” Beck said.
And he’s changed with it.
If you’re unfamiliar with Beck, the player, think of a cross between Scott Stevens and Brent Burns and you’d be close. In his rookie year with the Colorado Rockies, Beck scored 22 goals. Two years later, he was traded to New York for five players and would be named the Rangers’ captain during the height of their rivalry with the Isles
Sadly, Beck could never stay healthy enough to fulfil his limitless promise. The temptations of Manhattan also distracted him from his purpose and the hockey world never really saw the best of Beck.
“When he was traded to the Rangers I thought, ‘Oh, oh,’ ” Smyl said, before adding. “I know everyone goes through hard times and goes through different phases in their lives, but I’m so happy he’s found himself. He absolutely loves it there. He’s at peace with everything and he’s making a difference. He’s always been a friend.”
And always will be, even if he’s a world away.