China's ice hockey is still struggling despite the winter sports success of Yang Yang (A), Wang Meng, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo at short-track speed skating and figure skating.
There are only three professional ice hockey teams, in Harbin, Qiqihar and Jiamusi, and lack of financial investment has forced Chinese hockey players to play low-level competitions. This has caused Chinese ice hockey lag behind Asian rivals Japan and South Korea, not to mention traditional powerhouses such as Canada and USA.
But this may change and Chinese ice hockey stars could be playing in the National Hockey League (NHL) under a bold new rescue plan.
In a bid to boost the grass-roots levels of the sport, China Winter Sports Administration Centre officials and Charles Wang, owner of the New York Islanders of the NHL signed a deal called China Ice Hockey Project Hope in Beijing this week.
It is the first time China's ice hockey is linked to the world's most prestigious league.
In the five-year program, the New York Islander will help set up a China Ice Hockey Training Centre, three Women's Ice Hockey Training Bases, 30 primary schools of the Ice Hockey Project Hope and 10 high schools of the same kind.
"Project Hope is a good beginning toward our mutual goals of popularizing the sport of ice hockey and to further develop the talent pool of players here in China," said Wang, a Shanghai-born American. Billionaire Wang is a top executive of Computer Associates, the world's second largest software maker and believes Chinese players will soon feature in the NHL. But promising young players need to be nutured.
The first eight primary schools have already been chosen to start the program. China used to have about 20 teams in the early 1980s and the men's team also advanced into Pool B of World Ice Hockey Championships four times in 1979, 1981, 1986 and 2001. But some cities dumped their teams because field and facility shortages.
Now China's national team mainly depends on the remaining three squads.
Wang and his club have started paying attention to the sport's status since 2004. The club sent a manager to China in 2004 and set up its Harbin Representative Office. In 2005, 300 full sets of hockey equipment, worth US$200,000 were donated to the China Ice Hockey Association.
New York Islanders also selected its own coaches to China, helping assist China women's national team.
Last year, two young teams from Harbin were sponsored by NYI to compete with teams in Canada and New York.
Wang said in the next five years, more international exchange of competitions will be organized.
"We will proved opportunities for travel to USA to compete against other international youth hockey players," he said.
The Nassau Coliseum, home of the NYI, will hold the annual Lighthouse Invitational while a team from China will be selected to be able to compete with other teams of the same age group.
Through co-operation and know-how in the past two years, Wang is confident that one day, Chinese players will have the capability to join in NHL.
"I had dinner with some of the young players who were sent to Canada and New York to play last year. They will be good hockey players. There is no question about it. Everyone is delighted.
"I am confident that someday, we will see Chinese ice hockey players playing in NHL. They will be the pride of all Chinese people," said Wang.
To achieve the goal, the first step, according to Wang, is to bring some promising players to study in high school in the United States.
"We are planning to select two youngsters aged 14-15 who are excellent in academics, fluent in English and promising hockey players. These same students could apply to American colleges upon graduation.
"We hope the first group of candidates will be finalized by the end of this year and leave for New York by August 2007."
The coach assistance will also be involved in the program.
"We will assist China Ice Hockey coaches through various skill and strategy training sessions. As a matter of fact, two New York Islanders coaches arrived just this past Saturday night," Wang added.
Source: China Daily