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International love

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Six months after stopping in Switzerland, the Montreal Canadiens Hockey School paid a visit to China, setting up shop in the Far East for the very first time.

With Canadiens alums Steve Shutt, Gaston Gingras, Patrice Brisebois and Mathieu Dandenault in tow, staff members made the 10,500 km trek to Beijing in early January for a 10-day trip designed to spread the love of the game – and a passion for the CH – to youngsters in China’s capital city, which also just happens to be the second most populous city in the world.

Some 150 kids in the U6 to U12 age groups took part in three separate two-day hockey camps staged at Beijing’s Hokay Skating Center and the Joy City Chaoyang mall. The project was initiated in collaboration with CTC Group Limited, a leading provider of winter sports and leisure facilities from ice rinks to winter theme parks, as well as a full array of sports and event management services.

“We brought the North American method of playing the game and teaching the game to China. It was a full-on Canadiens camp, just like we do every year at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard,” shared Angelo Ruffolo, the Canadiens’ senior coordinator of business development and events. “Kids were given all kinds of Canadiens gear – a jersey, socks and a T-shirt. On ice, it was a mix of power skating, flow drills, shooting and passing. We took them through the entire progression of being a hockey player, including the off-ice element, too. They did a lot of pre-game activities – dynamic stretching, agility drills, and teamwork with a soccer ball. Our goal is always to give them a feel for a day in the life of an NHL player, a Canadiens player.”

Students in attendance couldn’t have asked for better mentors in that regard. Not only do Shutt, Gingras, Brisebois and Dandenault boast 3,282 games of NHL experience between them, but they also hoisted the Stanley Cup a combined 10 times over the course of their careers.

“Collectively, between the four of us, we wanted to go on the ice with the kids and stress to them the importance of having fun with the game. Even more importantly, we wanted to stress that to the parents. We wanted to emphasize that the kids would learn important life skills along the way by being involved in hockey, skills that are going to be valuable for the rest of their lives,” mentioned Shutt, who played 12-plus seasons with the Canadiens, before wrapping up his career with the Los Angeles Kings following the 1984-85 campaign. “I thought the four of us did a good job of conveying that message to the players and their parents, too.”

It was evident to Shutt early on that Chinese youngsters had clearly taken to hockey. Having never traveled to China before, the Hall-of-Famer was eager to see what up-and-coming players could do with a puck, and he was pleasantly surprised by their abilities.

“I think all of us weren’t really sure what to expect going over there. We didn’t know the calibre of hockey they were playing or what they were really doing in the hockey world. We were really paying attention to the enthusiasm of the players, and we could tell right away that they had a sparkle in their eyes, a real passion for the game. That was really encouraging for us. You could tell that they really wanted to be there,” explained Shutt, who was impressed with the campers’ play from the start. “Their skill set was higher than we thought. We saw that very quickly. That’s a credit to the professional coaches they’ve got over there – some Canadians, Russians, Finns. Their skills were a product of that coaching, so they’re clearly doing things well.”

While China isn’t necessarily a hockey power just yet, the game continues to grow in popularity in that part of the world. Given that Beijing will play host to the 2022 Winter Olympics, officials are putting extra emphasis on promoting hockey to people of all ages, especially young people who could potentially suit up for a Chinese squad in just over six years’ time.

“We know there’s a lot of potential in China. There are at least 6,000 kids playing hockey there. With the Winter Olympics on their way and with people watching more and more hockey on TV, the potential is enormous to grow the game. If youngsters get exposed to it, they can become fans forever,” shared Stephane Verret, the Canadiens’ manager of youth hockey development. “We’re seeing a bigger push to increase the number of kids playing the game in China. When people have their minds set on something over there, they go all out. They continue to bring good coaches over, and I think they’re going about the process the right way.”

Canadiens staffers had the full support of the Canadian government during their travels. Mr. Guy St. Jacques, Canada’s Ambassador to China – and a devout Habs fan – welcomed them at the Canadian embassy in Beijing for a reception on Jan. 13 and a viewing party, too. Mr. St. Jacques also participated in a 4-on-4 hockey tournament featuring 20 teams at the architecturally stunning Beijing National Stadium – also known as the Bird’s Nest.

“That support meant a lot,” confided Verret, who, along with Ruffolo, spearheaded the trip to East Asia. “The fact that the kids were able to relate to a winning franchise and players who’d enjoyed success was a big plus for us. It brought a sense of credibility. They knew they were being taught by some of the best players to ever play the game. I think that helped them and their parents stay focused on what we were trying to teach them.”

With that in mind, Shutt believes the journey was well worth it for all involved.

“I’ve gone from a hockey player to a hockey broadcaster to a hockey coach, and now I’ve got a new role as a hockey ambassador. The Canadiens are spreading the word of hockey throughout the world, and China is the next place. It’s a global vision for the game, and the Chinese are definitely going to be a part of it,” concluded Shutt. “It’s kind of a new challenge for us to be able to do that, and it’s a lot of fun as well.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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