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Youth help to halt ice hockey's slide

Updated: 2015-05-04 10:00
By LEI LEI (China Daily)
Youth help to halt ice hockey's slide

A growing number of children in Beijing have embraced ice hockey, and their families have warmed to the sport as it helps kids build character and health. [Photo/China Daily]

Lack of new talent forces Sun and other senior players out of retirement for world tourney

Ice hockey remains a niche sport at the elite level in China despite public enthusiasm for Beijing's bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, but increasing youth participation bodes well for the future, according to insiders.

However, they say progress is unlikely to be fast. Hopes that the Chinese women's team will take part in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics have suffered a blow as the team finished third at the World Championship Division I Group B tournament in Beijing last month.

This meant the women failed to win promotion to the higher-level Group A, and this will make it harder for them to qualify for the 2018 Winter Games.

The dearth of up-and-coming talent was shown by the fact that veteran Sun Rui was recalled as captain after a two-year retirement to take part in the competition, staged by the International Ice Hockey Federation.

She was embarrassed by the fact that, at 33, she remains the country's best player long after her prime.

Nevertheless, the excited screams and cheers from supporters made her feel optimistic about the future of the sport.

"I was gratified that such a big audience was here to cheer up for us," said Sun. "I could see hope for the sport in China. We are not alone."

Four of Sun's national teammates from the early 2000s who had also retired were persuaded to come back for the tournament due to the lack of current talent.

"It was a challenge both physically and mentally, but I couldn't sit back and watch my beloved sport struggle because of the thin talent pool for the national team," Sun said.

The current situation is a far cry from the success that ice hockey enjoyed in the 1990s, when more than 10 provincial sides from Northwest and Northeast China competed against each other regularly. The teams were fully funded by local sports bureaus.

The surge culminated at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, where the women's national side finished fourth, a level of achievement rarely accomplished by China in team events at the Olympics.

Gold medal obsession

Driven by the gold medal obsession in the country's State-run sports system, local sports bureaus started to cut investment in big-spending winter events such as ice hockey in the 2000s. The funds and resources were reallocated to individual sports including figure skating and speedskating.

"It takes a long time and a lot of money to cultivate a group of talents to produce elite results in ice hockey," said Tong Lixin, deputy director of the State Winter Sports Administrative Center. "A lot of local sports officials didn't bother investing time and money in it as they wanted to see instant results in the four-year Olympics cycle."

According to the center, fewer than 300 players are registered with two teams in Harbin and Qiqihar in Heilongjiang province and train full-time under the State-run umbrella. The total includes both men and women.

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