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Giving the cold season a warm welcome

By Sun Xiaochen | China Daily | Updated: 2016-12-31 07:25

Hockey is the goal for Beijing's ice warriors

Featuring intense action on the ice and a festive atmosphere off the rink, a professional hockey game held on December 24 in Beijing has underlined the game's rising profile as China prepares for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

Although not a traditional holiday in China, Christmas is catching on with a growing number of people at shopping malls, restaurants, theaters and now sports arenas.

The Kontinental Hockey League game between Beijing's Kunlun Red Star and Russia's Khabarovsk Amur on Christmas Eve at the LeSports Center in west Beijing is proof of the growing interest in the sport.

At the Olympic venue built for the 2008 Beijing Games, the fierce contest between the two clubs, who play in the intercontinental professional league, coupled with Christmas decorations, the presence of celebrities and cheerleaders in Santa Claus outfits, provided a feast for about 8,000 spectators, who chose to celebrate the adopted holiday by watching sports.

Despite Red Star's 1-0 loss to Amur in a penalty shootout, fans still enjoyed the speed, energy and brutal action of the sport - which is just beginning to be promoted in China - as well as the vibe in the arena.

"The game itself is very exciting already. The festive atmosphere and the energy in the arena were even more entertaining. We really enjoy the experience together, although the sport is new in China," said Qi Minhui, who brought his son to the game.

Inspired by Beijing's successful bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics, Qi has signed his son up for a junior hockey program at a commercial rink at east Beijing's Joy City shopping center.

The 6-year-old participates in 90-minute sessions twice a week, and has learned the basic rules of the sport, so he is able to play in practice games.

"I don't think much about whether this sport could be a career choice in the future. I just want him to be tough, healthy and to have fun with the new sport," Qi said.

Qi and his son are among a growing number of Beijing residents involved in the development of hockey, which has been highlighted as a priority by China's leading sports bodies.

According to the Beijing Hockey Association, a record 130 club teams - consisting of 1,690 children - have registered with the association for the 2016-17 Beijing Minor Hockey League, which plays through March 12.

In its inaugural season in 2008, the league featured just four teams and 20 players.

The entry of Beijing's Kunlun Red Star to the KHL, an influential league in the model of the NHL, was part of a Sino-Russian exchange jointly proposed by President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in June.

As part of the country's 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) for sports development, the National Winter Sports Administrative Center announced earlier this year that it would include socially funded hockey organizations, such as the Red Star club, in a four-tier national winter sports system to better scout and cultivate youth talents.

"To catch up with the world's best in our comparatively weak events, we have to mobilize all possible resources and adopt all kinds of methods to develop talent," said Wang Zhili, deputy director of the center.

"One of the main tasks for us to establish and run a pro club at the highest level is to cultivate homegrown talents for 2022 by providing them with international drills and experience," said Liao Zhiyu, Red Star's president.

Giving the cold season a warm welcome

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