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San Jose strengthens ties to China Sharks

by Bill Meltzer

The San Jose Sharks have stepped up to help further the development of pro hockey in China with their current
sponsorship of the China Sharks, who compete in the ALIH Asian League.
Anyone who has watched the Summer Olympics this year and seen the enthusiastic reaction of the Chinese fans and the dedication of the Chinese athletes can understand why the global hockey community sees so much untapped potential in the development of Chinese ice hockey. 

In a nation with more than a billion people, if even a small percentage of Chinese youths concentrated in the northeast of the country seriously take up the game, there will eventually be a large pool of talent. But for Chinese hockey to grow in the future, it can't be allowed to die in the present. During the last year, the NHL's San Jose Sharks have been working to make sure there's a viable Chinese team in the seven-team Asia League of Ice Hockey (ALIH).

Without San Jose's sponsorship of the league's Chinese team, pro hockey would likely cease to exist in China for the foreseeable future. By keeping the game alive and providing the top Chinese players an outlet to improve their skills through high-level coaching and ALIH competition, Chinese hockey has a chance to eventually take off.

Sound far-fetched? Consider this: It was not until 1994 that China had a viable domestic basketball league. Fourteen years later, China may still not be an international basketball power but, through nongovernmental initiatives, a successful basketball league has taken hold. Participation in the sport has grown immensely and there have been a handful of Chinese players to reach the NBA, including national icon Yao Mang. Western NBA stars also enjoy a degree of celebrity status.

Given time to develop and access to proper coaching from those with NHL and/or European experience, there is no reason why Chinese hockey can't eventually take off as well. The San Jose Sharks aren't the only NHL club that recognizes this potential. Two years ago, the New York Islanders launched a major initiative called Project Hope, designed to eventually build several dozen rinks in Heilongjiang Province (home to about 38 million people) while providing hockey equipment, coaching and English classroom education opportunities for Chinese youngsters.

At present, however, hockey is struggling to gain momentum as a participation sport outside of small pockets of Heilongjiang Province in the sub-arctic northeastern part of the country. Even the best Chinese players are not of high caliber. The Chinese national team is unlikely to advance beyond the international Division II level in the short-term future, and the Chinese entries in the Asia League of Ice Hockey (ALIH) have had major difficulty playing competitive hockey against the circuit's Japanese and Korean teams.

Last season, in an effort to make the Chinese a little more competitive in the ALIH, the two Chinese clubs (Harbin and Qiqiha) were merged into one, essentially forming a national team. Under the management of the Chinese Ice Hockey Association, the top players from the two clubs were chosen to form a new Beijing-based team.

The San Jose Sharks, through parent company Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment (SVSE), then agreed to take over as owner and operator of the team, which was renamed the China Sharks. San Jose sent Junior Sharks coach Derek Eisler to coach the club, along with five North American players with major junior, collegiate, and/or ECHL experience.

Unfortunately, the Chinese club remained by far the weakest team in the Asia League, winning just three games over the course of the 30-game regular season. The China Sharks finished a whopping 50 points behind the first-place Seibu Prince Rabbits, and scored just 63 goals for the season while allowing 159.

Former NHL players join the fold

During the summer, the Asia League passed a rule that will allow the China Sharks to carry up to seven import players (the two Korean teams can carry five each, while the Japanese squares are limited to two) in order make the games more competitive. Earlier this month, the Sharks announced three major signings. The club will also be changing home bases this year, relocating from Beijing to Shanghai.

The club signed former NHL goaltender Wade Flaherty, former NHL defenseman Steve McKenna, and one-time Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers right wing prospect Adam Taylor. In addition to serving as the starting goaltender, Flaherty will also serve as goaltending coach for the Chinese national team prospects. McKenna, who serves as coach of Australia's men's national team and led the Mighty Roos to a gold medal at the 2008 IIHF Division II World Championships, will being a playing assistant coach to Eisler.

The 40-year-old Flaherty is entering his 20th pro season. While the keeper spent considerable time in the minor leagues, he also appeared in the NHL with the San Jose Sharks, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks.

"I have known and worked with Flats for 20 years, and this is the key signing in the Asian League this offseason," China Sharks GM Chris Collins said in a statement "Wade has been part of some great teams, won titles at major professional levels and is a fiery competitor who will not back down. I fully expect him to help us take Chinese hockey to a whole new level and understanding worldwide by his dominant playing style and his insatiable desire to win every time he hits the ice."

Poor goaltending has been a chronic problem for the Chinese, both in the Asia League and in IIHF-sanctioned competitions. Flaherty's presence by itself won't transform the Sharks into a winning team, but he will undoubtedly improve the quality of the team's goaltending by leaps and bounds. His lasting legacy will be helping Chinese goalies start to hone their games for the future – an absolutely crucial step needed for the improvement of the national program.

"Chris Collins called and told me what he was doing with (SVS&E president) Greg Jamison and Charlie Faas and SVS&E were doing and what their long-term commitment was in Asia," Flaherty said . "I decided the offer was too good to pass up."

Former NHL defenseman Steve McKenna, the current head coach of the men's national team in Australia, will play for the China Sharks and will also serve as an assistant coach for this season.
McKenna, meanwhile, is no stranger to the Asia League or overseas hockey. He's played professionally on four continents (North America, Europe, Australia and Asia). The 35-year-old Toronto native now makes his permanent residence in Australia, but has spent last two seasons in the ALIH playing for the South Korean High1 Chuncheon club before rejoining the Aussie national team that he coaches.
"I felt he could be a difference maker for our franchise," said Collins. "The fact Steve has played with Gretz (Wayne Gretzky), Mess (Mark Messier), Leetchie (Brian Leetch), Mario (Lemieux) and Jags (Jaromir Jagr) is very fortunate for our players as he knows how to win and can't be fooled with when it comes to work ethic and expectations which are key ingredients of turning this franchise and program around."

The 6-foot-6, 253-pound McKenna played 373 NHL games for the Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins. In the NHL, he was known more for his physical play and willingness to drop the gloves than he was for his skill level, although he tallied nine goals while seeing time at both defenseman and forward for a rebuilding Penguins team during the 2002-03 campaign.

In the Asia League, due to the discrepancy in talent between the top imports and most domestic players, McKenna serves as both a power-play quarterback and shutdown defenseman. He will be the Sharks' number one defenseman, anchoring a blue-line corps that will also include Chinese national team players Wang Dahai, Zhang Haiquan, Qu Siyan and Li Qing Ming.

McKenna tallied five goals and 23 points in 33 games for High1 (formerly Kangwon Land) during the 2006-07 season and 13 points in 30 games last year. High1 finished in second place last year before struggling in the playoffs due to an inordinately long layoff between the end of the regular season and the start of its first series.

"I'm very much focused on wanting to get to Shanghai and join Derek and Chris to help build the Chinese talent level and professional game," McKenna said. "Chris and I struck a deal right away, which has allowed Derek, Chris and I to work very hard this offseason in developing a winning game plan for the China Sharks. I personally see a ton of talent in China and coupled with the veterans Chris has brought in, I feel that we will surprise a lot of people in hockey this season."

Taylor, 24, has bounced around the North American minor leagues since being drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes in the seventh round of the 2002 Entry Draft. He's shuttled between the AHL and ECHL, suiting up for five teams. The right wing enjoyed his strongest pro success with the ECHL's Florida Everblades, for whom he tallied 21 goals and 41 points in 37 games after coming over during the 2006-07 season. He spent the majority of last season in the AHL with the Rochester Americans in a checking line capacity. At 6-foot, 200 pounds, he's average-sized for North American pro hockey but big by Asia League standards.

Imports led club last season

Flaherty, McKenna and Taylor will join the Sharks' holdover imports from last season: centers Jason Beeman and Kevin Korol, defenseman Dan Knapp and winger Keegan McAvoy.

Beeman, 23, played his junior hockey for the WHL's Tri City Americans and played in the ECHL for the Texas Wildcatters prior to joining the China Sharks last season. In 2007-08, he led the Sharks with 16 goals (tied for fourth in the league) and 28 points (16th in the league).

McAvoy, 27, previously played for the Seattle Thunderbirds in the WHL, the University of Saskatchewan and 20 games for the ECHL's Reading Royals. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Saskatoon native was second on the team in points last year with 22 (seven goals, 15 assists) in 30 games.

Korol, 27, played in the WHL for the Kelowna Rockets and Regina Pat and in the ECHL's Arkansas Riverblades before joining the Sharks last year. He was the only player on the club apart from Beeman to reach double-digit goals last year, scoring 10 goals and adding six assists.

The American-born Knapp, 26, is a University of Nebraska-Omaha grad who saw action with the ECHL's Pensacola Ice Pilots during the 2006-07, where he and Taylor were briefly teammates. Last year, he had three goals, 13 points and 50 penalty minutes in 27 games for the Sharks.

Among the team's Chinese players, the top players last season were play-making forward Liu Henan (14 points in 27 games) and Dahai (10 points, 74 penalty minutes in 22 games). Wang also managed to post an even plus-minus rating (19 plusses, 19 minuses) despite the club's horrific record and goals-against ratio. Defenseman Zhang Weiyang led the team with 84 penalty minutes (tied for fourth in the league).

The 2008-09 China Sharks will begin training camp Aug. 23 in the northern Chinese city of Suihua. Next month, the club will travel to Japan for its ALIH regular season opener Sept. 25, taking on the Nikko Ice Bucks (last season's sixth-place team). The Sharks will play their first six games of the season in Japan before playing their first game at home in Shanghai on Oct. 11 against the Seibu Prince Rabbits.

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