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Wang gets joy from giving

by Dan Rosen /

“These are kids who love playing hockey, and Project Hope is about bringing hockey to the children,” Wang said.
UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- For every accomplishment New York Islanders owner Charles Wang has on his lucrative resume, the simple joy he got watching a group of grade school kids play hockey Friday afternoon seemed to have the biggest impact.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” Wang said, still smiling some 30 minutes later while talking with an inflection in his voice that expressed his joy. “You saw the faces of these kids coming off the ice.”

Wang’s enthusiasm is real because these were no ordinary kids, and especially no ordinary hockey players. Not because of their talent, but because of where they learned to skate, stickhandle, shoot and score.

“China is not known for ice hockey as you know,” Wang continued.

Wang and the Islanders plan to change that. They’ve already made remarkable strides through the Charles B. Wang Ice Hockey Project Hope venture that has put forth a remarkable fundraising effort to grow hockey in Wang’s home country of China.

“These are kids who love playing hockey, and Project Hope is about bringing hockey to the children,” Wang said. “We have already built 17 rinks and hope to build another eight this year. We have multiplied the number of kids (playing hockey in China) by about something like 600 percent and we hope to continue that.

“Perhaps one day we’ll have a Yao Ming for hockey.”

As part of Project Hope, the Islanders welcomed two teams from the Heilongjiang Province to Long Island this past weekend to compete in the Islanders’ annual Lighthouse Tournament for youth hockey players.

The teams from Qiqihaer and Harbin played the opening game of the Lighthouse Tournament’s International Division on the Nassau Coliseum ice Friday morning in front of a throng of media as well as Wang, Islanders coach Ted Nolan, General Manager Garth Snow, and a group of players, including captain Bill Guerin.

This is the second year the Islanders brought Qiqihaer in for the tournament, but Harbin is making its first appearance. A team from Finland, Ilves Oy, is also in town. A local team, the Westchester Mariners, agreed to fill out the International Division.

“I think he (Wang) takes a lot of satisfaction out of the smiles on the kids’ faces and the experience of a lifetime he’s providing to these kids who otherwise wouldn’t have this opportunity,” Snow said. “It creates a relationship through a sport that we all love.”

“It was nice for me to see them live,” Islanders defenseman Andy Sutton told the team’s Web site. “It’s a great thing Mr. Wang has done, helping to spread hockey to China.”

The idea for Project Hope was born when Wang purchased the Islanders in 2000. With the assistance of the Chinese government, as well as the China Ice Hockey Association, Project Hope launched in 2006.

“When I bought the team, I said we can connect through sport with Americans here reaching back to kids in China,” Wang said. “One day the hope is that in an interview somebody asks, ‘Have you ever been to the United States’ – hopefully he’s the President of China (being interviewed) – and he can say, ‘Yes, when I was 9-years-old I played in the Lighthouse Tournament.’ That’s what we would like to see.”

The Islanders, like many Major League Baseball teams do in Latin America, have an office in Harbin, where most of the 17 rinks are built on school grounds. The rinks have not only been used to train future hockey players, but as part of the school’s physical education curriculum.

Ever since Wang brought Project Hope to China, the hockey-playing public in the country has soared from roughly 2,000 kids to at least 20,000. The Islanders have not only provided the rinks, but a plethora of equipment as well.

“The China Ice Hockey Association, as would be expected, has a goal to further develop the necessary skill set to grow the exciting sport of hockey. How can we help do that was the premise?” said Chris Dey, an Islanders senior vice president and alternate governor. “One of the important things was when Charles established the New York Islanders office in China. Since that time, through Project Hope, we have been building outdoor rinks on elementary and junior high school campuses throughout the Heilongjiang Province, the winter sports capital for China.”

The Islanders’ goal is to build eight rinks per year for the next four to five years and than take measure of the progress.

“As you can imagine, you start with that ambitious goal and now the China Ice Hockey Association is saying; ‘Can you send over some players or coaches?’ ” Dey said.

Judging by the early results, Project Hope can only be called a raging success.

So later this year, the Islanders plan to send Hockey Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier, who is the team’s executive director for player development, along with Bernie Cassell, an assistant coach with the Islanders’ AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, to China.

“When they go over they work primarily with the coaching staffs for these schools,” Dey said. “They will also work with the Chinese National team.”

“The Chinese government has been tremendously supportive through the China Ice Hockey Association,” Wang added. “This cannot be done without all the different levels of government, whether it’s the city, the province, or nationally.”

Judging by the early results, Project Hope can only be called a raging success.

“More and more kids want to play hockey in China and we can choose the excellent ones,” Qiqihaer coach Bai Chang Qing said through an interpreter. “We have a great base, many kids and we can choose.”

But Project Hope’s goal stretches way beyond hockey. Dey said one of the immediate aspirations of Project Hope is for a true goodwill expedition.

“This summer, the newest goal, something we have not done yet and hope to pull off, would be to have the Charles B. Wang Ice Hockey Project Hope Tournament in China,” he said. “Our hope is to reciprocate by having youth teams from the U.S. go over to compete in China, so it has this goodwill aspect to it as well with a cultural exchange.”

He also said there is a talk of bringing some student athletes from China back to Long Island this summer. They would not only train with American kids, but also attend English classes at a Chinese school to improve their proficiency in the language.

If some of the kids do become proficient in both written and conversational English, than the Islanders’ long-term goal of offering Project Hope scholarships, fully funded by the NHL team, of course, has a chance of succeeding.

“We want these children to have an opportunity,” Wang said. “If they really play hockey well, learn English well, become a Project Hope student so to speak, they’ll get a scholarship to come to a boarding school, perhaps high school, or perhaps even (college).

“If we can connect enough, we can make it a better world.”

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