Hockey in China? You betcha.

Recently, NBC showed a clip of Chinese broadcasters covering an NHL game:

First off, that’s actually more common than you’d think. The NHL has a deal with CCTV to broadcast its games. CCTV airs games 3-5 times a week on national television and will have every Stanley Cup final game covered.

I know this because I am, how to put it, “not very good at Mandarin Chinese” and the last time I was in mainland China, I was stuck watching the series “Pleasant Goat and Big Bad Wolf” with my younger brother. Yes, it’s a real show, look it up. Sadly to say, I was actually fond of it, meaning that if anyone who personally knows me ever reads this blog, my social life is beyond doomed. Listen, the show had its moments.

Luckily, I discovered NHL hockey being played on TV. This was in the summertime of around 2010, so suffice to say I was pretty darn surprised. It was a playoff game being rebroadcast, but NHL games being replayed on TV during August is something you expect out of NHL Network (r.i.p. Canadian version) rather than a Chinese TV channel.

But it was there, and you know what? There’s a reason it was being broadcast. There’s a reason it was being played not just in the wee hours of the morning during filler, but at 8 pm in the evening. That reason is simple.

Someone wanted to watch hockey.

And guess what? The government is similarly interested and is already making moves to try and boost its own program in time for 2022.

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in Chinese hockey history, but apparently it wasn’t all that bad. My mother came from a well-off (well, well-off for that time period) family and so she was one of the few people who actually knew what a pair of ice skates looked like. They may have been 1920s era skates, but they were skates. Honestly, if she’d kept them I bet they would have been extremely valuable as pieces of hockey history. If only she was a hoarder.

My father was apparently a speedskater, and he got to watch the national team train when he was taking breaks. So my family had a bit of history with ice in general. This explains so much, in all honesty. If any of my family complain about my obsession, I can blame it on my genes. That and the similarly unhealthy obsession with carbonated products.

But this was rare in an era where the country was poor and most people did what they had to to survive. So it’s no wonder that China’s hockey program is as obscure as it gets. At its peak, in the late 70s through to the 90s (coincidentally the exact years where my parents hit their teenage years), the Chinese entry on the World stage was competitive in Pool B play. Since then, it’s been a slow, downward spiral and now they’re ranked 39th internationally.

And this is for good reason. Coming out of some difficult years, the Chinese government wanted to make a name for itself on the international stage. How best to do that? Well, you could go out and win a bunch of Olympic medals of course! And that they did, pouring money into development of world class athletes in sports such as diving, swimming, gymnastics, and athletics (the official term for track and field).

Why those sports? It’s simple really, according to my mother. All of those sports have 1 thing in common; there are scores of divisions within them, each with their own medal podium. In the pool we have diving (different heights, springboard/no board, single and paired), synchronized swimming, and all the distance lengths (50 m, 100 m). Within those lengths you have freestyle, medley, and relays, and each category is further expanded by two, 1 for women and 1 for men. In gymnastics, we have rings, bars (parallel and uneven), balance beam, floor, vault, etc. Then it’s further split into individual and team medals, and once again split for men and women. Track and field? There you find hurdles, archery, sprints, biathlons, triathlons, cycling….

On a cost basis, it is more efficient to put money into events that can provide a large amount of athletes with a large amount of medals (in the standings). Why put more funds into a national hockey team of 25+ potential players, a coaching staff, a training staff and a management staff that will yield exactly 2 medals at most (men’s and women’s) at the Olympics, when you could do the same for 25+ athletes, coaches and trainers in the pool, and win 10 medals?

So there’s fair reason for China’s hockey program to have declined significantly since the 70s. The fact that there’s interest in building it up again is likely because of hockey’s status as one of the more popular sports internationally. American football is incredibly prevalent in the U.S. but at best a niche sport elsewhere; baseball and basketball are somewhat more followed, especially by countries who have their own domestic players and leagues (such as Japan), but are still far from the same level as soccer.

In fact, overall international presence is one of the few areas where the NHL remains on the same level with the other Big 4 leagues, especially in Europe. So it’s great that the powers that be are looking into expanding hockey’s influence in China. That being said, there are a few snags with this plan that will keep Chinese hockey on the fringes for a good while.

For one, the cost of playing hockey is something that will keep many young children out of the sport. If a wealthy first world nation like Canada is already experiencing declines in participation due to cost, then what will China be like? Popular opinion dictates that with so many people the market in China must be foolproof for any business. That’s wrong on so many levels; the average person does just well enough to get by, and the ones that don’t work long enough hours that they won’t have the time or energy to play recreational hockey when they could be doing other things in their spare time. Even if the government funds the athletes, the time cost of practicing hockey instead of developing actual life skills is one that is going to be hard to justify in a culture that’s all about school.

In North America, sport is seen as a way to earn your way into the 1%. This is far from the case in China. With most families having just 1 child, there is unbearable pressure on the part of everyone to ensure that the child is able to support his family. And unlike some other cultures, in China, family means “everyone in your immediate bloodline”. Olympic-level athletes may be able to hold up, but it’s not seen as a reliable job, not everyone is an Olympic-caliber athlete and the operating system for sport in China is underdeveloped to the point where many of these athletes are forced to continue working in their sport simply because they haven’t learned anything else. It’s not seen as a position of upwards mobility.

The highest level of hockey in China is the Asia League. That’s not good enough to justify spending years of time training instead of getting a proper education. And the infrastructure (both physically and in terms of coaching and development) simply isn’t good enough to develop athletes of a high-enough caliber to play professional hockey elsewhere. So no family would willingly send their child to play hockey and take away time from their schoolwork, rightly or wrongly.

That being said, if there’s one thing the country does well, it’s putting their money where their mouth is. So who knows? Maybe in 20 years we’ll start seeing kids coming out of Nanjing or Shanghai who can do this:

-Evan

One thought on “Hockey in China? You betcha.”

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