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BARRY THE BUILDER

Former NHLer has played important role in growing game in Hong Kong

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

Back in the day, he answered to Bubba and, at 6-foot-3 and 215-lb., could pound the puck or flatten forwards with the force of an oncoming freight train.

"Ah," jokes Barry Beck, the second over-all pick in the 1977 NHL Draft, "the good old days."

It's 9 a.m. in Hong Kong (7 p.m. the previous early evening, in Calgary) and in Unit 1013, offices of the Hong Kong Ice Hockey Academy on Trademart Drive overlooking Kowloon Bay, the work day is beginning.

"The sun,'' reports Beck, "has been really strong the past four days. Real strong. Don't think I've ever felt it this strong. 

"And high humidity.

"Feels like 40, 42 (Celsius). You just run from one building to the next building to stay in the air conditioning. And it's only going to get hotter and more humid during July.

"I kinda like it, though, the heat. That's one of the reasons I've stayed."

Eleven years now.

Just turned 60, Beck speaks little Cantonese but in cosmopolitan Hong Kong that's okay. English will do nicely.

The Flames and Boston Bruins are, of course, traveling to China for a second instalment of the O.R.G. NHL China Games in September and the second half of the pre-season twin bill is set for the Universiade Centre in Shenzhen, close to Hong Kong.

"Unfortunately, that weekend we already have our annual tournament scheduled in," says Beck. "So we're probably not going to be able to make it to the game.

"That's a shame.

"I went to the game in Beijing last year. I think it's just great for the teams to come over here and get a feel for what's going on. And for the Chinese people to see them.

"For the league to see first-hand how big this market is and try and understand it and how their presence can impact hockey here."

Beck's Asian odyssey began when a Vancouver police officer, returning from Hong Kong after participating in an annual nine-team invitational tournament there, gave him a call.

"He said they were looking for someone to run a hockey academy,'' recalls Beck. "I said: 'No, thanks. But I'll see if I can find someone who might be interested.'

"There were no ex-NHL players over here at the time. And it is, of course, a huge, huge market, virtually untapped."

Initial doubts aside, businessman Thomas Wu, the Academy's chairman and founder, proved to be a very persuasive gentleman.

"I like the vision and strategy of Thomas. He's an engineer, puts numbers together pretty quick and really helps local kids in local communities.

"Mostly grassroots kids. We don't spend a lot of time with international schools - they've got lots of money, the kids have lots of money. We like to nurture.

"We were just a small Academy at first - my first class was with seven kids - but then Thomas was elected vice-president of the IIHF and things moved along quickly."

The number of enrolees has swelled since then to nearly 1,000.

"That's in our regular programs, primary schools, high schools. We're very proud of that,'' says Beck.

"And we're now partnered with the Swedish Ice Hockey Association, signed a four-year agreement with them. Sweden is sort of the same population as Hong Kong, around 10 million.

"We thought we could work together so they've been coming over, doing coaching seminars and helping our referees because we also have adult leagues.

"With Sweden being here, we've got to raise the bar. We want to start developing some really good players while having a sustainable program where kids are having fun.

"We don't want the kids playing rec hockey to stop at 13 years old. They need somewhere to play."

Out there on the horizon are the 2022 Winter Olympics, giving Beijing the distinction of being the first city to ever host both a Summer (2008) and Winter Games.

"We'll see what'll happens in 2022," reasons Beck. "They're trying to get players now because they're ranked about 35th in the world. That's not going to be competitive at that level."

What's needed to really raise the game's profile, he believes, is a talismanic figure, a local to grab the country's attention and shine a spotlight on the sport.

"They want to find the next sort of (former NBA star) Yao Ming, someone to really open up hockey, give young players dreams.

"I hope by 2022 that can happen. The Islanders drafted a kid, Andong Song (sixth round, 172nd overall in 2015). Is he the guy? I don't know.

Song, born in Beijing, grew up playing hockey on short-track speed-skating loops because there were only two rinks in the Chinese capital at the time, moved to Oakville, Ont., at age 10 and is currently playing for the Madison Capitals of the USHL. 

While it will take years to see what impact Song has on growing hockey in China, there's no doubt the games between the Flames and Bruins will certainly give the sport there a shot in the arm.

Flames VP of Hockey Operations Don Maloney is excited for the role his club will play.

"Hockey's a fast, exciting contact sport," he said. "There's how many billions of people in China? That's how many hundreds of millions of reasons we need to have a presence there."

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