Two foreign teams, the Russian-based Golden Amur and the Scandinavian-operated Nordic Vikings, both attempted to play their “home” games in China and form talent exchanges with the two Chinese clubs, Harbin (later relocated to Beijing under the name Hosa Hockey) and Qiqihar (later moved to Changchun as Changchun Fuao). But the projects proved to be too costly financially and both Golden Amur and the Nordic Vikings were disbanded after one season in the Asia League.
This season, in an effort to make the Chinese a little more competitive, the two Chinese clubs were merged into one. Under the management of the Chinese Ice Hockey Association, the top players from the two clubs were chosen to form the new Beijing-based team.
Enter the San Jose Sharks. The NHL club has agreed to send five minor-league players and three coaches to the Chinese team as well as lending financial support to the continued development of Chinese youth hockey. With the transfer of the team naming rights from former sponsor Hosa Sports to the Sharks, the team’s name has become the China Sharks.
“It is the first time we have got the support from the NHL and we can say they came to support us in our most difficult period,” Lan Li, the vice director of the Chinese Winter Sports Administrative Center told the China Daily.
The Sharks’ initiative actually marks the second major undertaking by an NHL team in China, but the first directly geared toward boosting China’s standing in the Asia League.
Last year, the New York Islanders launched the ambitious Project Hope.
Project Hope is on the one-hand a scholarship program to offer opportunities for young Chinese student-athletes. It will also see 40 outdoor rinks built and maintained in the Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces of northeastern China. The rinks will be used by youth hockey programs, the surrounding communities and schools. Eight rinks will be built this year.
Meanwhile, the International Ice Hockey Federation also has taken a special interest in seeing Chinese hockey succeed at the international level. China has participated in several IIHF-sponsored hockey development programs. Last year, China hosted a bracket of the IIHF Division I World Championships, with the national team receiving the automatic tournament berth bestowed on the host nation. While the national team struggled and was relegated to Division II, they gained valuable experience. Just as important, organizers were encouraged by the attendance figures at several games.
For Chinese hockey to grow in the future, however, it can’t die in the present. Even after the merger of Hosa and Changchun, the Chinese team still needed significant outside help to be more competitive in the Asia League. Additionally, the top Chinese junior players need access to high-caliber coaching and opportunities to play with and against a better grade of competition in order to improve. If China had to drop out the Asia League entirely due to lack of funds or inability to compete, the national hockey program would nearly be back to square one.
Giving the top adult Chinese players an outlet to play and improve was one of the reasons why there were originally two Chinese teams in the Asia League. But it’s become obvious that, even with a few foreign players (Asia League clubs can carry up to five import players), Chinese hockey simply doesn’t have the depth of talent to feed two competitive Asia League clubs.
That’s why the San Jose Sharks’ contributions to the China Sharks are a vital cog in the efforts to keep China competitive in the Asia League while the grass roots programs begin to take hold. In a nation with over 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 healthy pool of talent.
“The goal is to help them be more competitive,” San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison told the Boston Globe recently. “They’re in the infancy of trying to grow the game over there and we thought we’d like to try to help. It could help grow the game internationally as well as grow the brand of the San Jose Sharks and the National Hockey League.”
San Jose has sent Junior Sharks coach Derek Eisler to coach the China Sharks, assisted by Tom Lenox. The club also has sent five North American players with major junior, collegiate, and/or minor league experience to play for the China Sharks: forwards Keegan McAvoy, Kevin Korol, and Jason Beeman, defenseman Dan Knapp and goaltender Zach Sikich.
While none of the players are household names, their experience and skill level is comparable to the median level of talent on the better teams in the Asia League. It’s still a bit behind the top players on the Japanese clubs (where there a few former NHLers) but it’s a good start for the China Sharks.
McAvoy, 26, 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 Saskatoon native’s best season came last year in his senior year for U of Saskatchewan, in which he scored 18 goals, 39 points and added 100 penalty minutes in 36 games.
Korol, 26, played in the WHL for the Kelowna Rockets and Regina Pats, where he posted 83 points (24 goals) in 74 games during the 2001-02 season. The Choiceland, Saskatchewan native has also played for Acadia University and the ECHL’s Arkansas Riverblades.
Los Angeles native Beeman, 22, scored 58 points (28 goals) in 60 games for the WHL’s Tri City Americans during the 2005-06 season. Last season he played for the ECHL’s Texas Wildcatters, posting 24 points and 143 penalty minutes in 66 games.
Knapp, 25, is a native of Hermantown, Minn. The 6-foot-1, 190 pound defenseman graduated the University of Nebraska-Omaha and played for the Pensacola Ice Pilots in the ECHL before coming to the China Sharks. His best offensive output was four goals and 21 points in 38 games during his sophomore NCAA season.
The well-traveled Sikich, who will turn 27 later this month, cut his teeth in the USHL for the Sioux Falls Stampede before attending the Air Force Academy and St. Thomas College. He then played briefly for five UHL teams and a pair of ECHL clubs. While Sikich will be on hand to start the Sharks, Chinese goaltender Yu Yang is expected to see some playing time, with 21-year-old Xie Ming primarily seeing practice duty.
The North American additions have made an immediate impact on the Sharks.
In their first game of the season, played Sept. 29, the China Sharks took on the Nikko Ice Bucks (one of the four Japanese teams in the Asia League) in Beijing. Beeman got the Sharks on the board first, scoring a power-play goal at the 2:19 mark. Midway through the first period, Wang Zhiqiang extended the lead to 2-0. In the middle period, McAvoy made it a 3-0 game shorthanded. Thanks to Sikich, the Sharks went on to win by a 4-1 count despite being out-shot 39-18 (including a 17-2 margin in the third period).
The next day, the two clubs met again, with Yu in goal for the Sharks. The Chinese club trailed 1-0 after the first period, courtesy of a Yutaka Ono goal for Nikko. But Kevin Korol answered back for the China Sharks, scoring a power-play goal just nine seconds into the second period and adding a shorthanded goal three minutes later to give his club a 2-1 lead. The Japanese club tied the score midway through the second period. Neither club scored in the third period, so the game moved to overtime. At the 4:51 mark of the extra period, Hironori Kobayashi won the game for the Ice Bucks.
The Sharks’ next set of games are in Japan. The team will travel to play Oji Paper, last season’s third place club. It should be a stiff test for the China Sharks, as Oji is a better club than Nikko. The roster features the likes of former NHLers Ricard Persson and Shane Endicott as well as former AHL defenseman Aaron Keller and veteran goaltender Masahito Haruna, who played in the UHL for one season.
While it remains to be seen how well the China Sharks perform this season, the merger of the two Chinese ALIH teams and especially the assistance lent by the San Jose Sharks should at least help the club better hold its own in the Asia League.
No one expects miracles with Chinese hockey, but with the continued assistance of NHL clubs and the international community, there could opportunities galore for the sport in the years to come in the world’s most populous country