Sunday, 19 August 2018

UBC Takes On China

While the title of this article might entice some Americans to click on it based on the current trade and tariff disputes happening with our neighbours to the south, this article has nothing to do with economics. Instead, the UBC Thunderbirds women's hockey team is preparing for a three-game set with the newly-formed Shenzhen-based Chinese Development Team formed out of the merger of the Vanke Rays and Kunlun Red Star over the next week as the Thunderbirds begin a busy preseason schedule. This three-game series has a couple of purposes for the Shenzhen team as well as they are scouting for talent for their squad with the hopes of building a solid Chinese squad for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. This should be some rather good hockey played between the T-Birds and Shenzhen, so you may want to venture down to Father David Bauer Arena if you're in the UBC area!

Kunlun Red Star General Manager Rob Morgan spoke with CBC's Clare Hennig about his team coming to Vancouver and what he's hoping to accomplish.

"One of the initiatives now is to identify North Americans with Chinese descent who can help China medal and that's truly the goal of the government, the Chinese Ice Hockey Association and Kunlun Red Star," Morgan said.

If this raised an eyebrow on your face, you're not alone. The purpose of the CWHL accepting the Chinese entries into the league was to help facilitate and enhance the growth of the women's game in China. Morgan's statement above, however, seems to indicate that the Chinese government and the Chinese Ice Hockey Association are now abandoning the plan to have players born and trained in China making up the majority of the team.

There were some mentions in women's hockey circles that the addition of the two Chinese squads to the Canadian professional women's league was ambitious in terms of trying to accelerate China's presence on the world stage. Based on the statistical analysis of the Chinese players last season, the chasm between the North American players and the Chinese-born players was rather large. Needless to say, it appears the Chinese government and hockey federation have realized the same thing, and they're now looking to build the framework of their team with women of Chinese heritage as opposed to Chinese-born players.

Visiting Vancouver is a rather savvy move with the large Asian population in the city, and the Thunderbirds sent four players to the Chinese development camp in May who have Chinese heritage. Shiayli Toni, Emily Costales, Jenna Fletcher, and Tiffany Chiu spent a week in May at the camp, and it appears they'll get another long look this week with Rob Morgan and the Shenzhen-based Chinese Development Team in town. While there are no guarantees on any of these players making the Olympic team in 2022, the potential for one or all is certainly there based on the play of the four players over the last few Canada West seasons.

What I find more concerning about this move is that the Chinese team is making it harder for Chinese-born players who have been part of the rather awful Chinese training program over the last few years to make the Olympic team. Yes, I get that China wants a competitive, successful Olympic team at the Olympiad they are hosting, but what happens after the 2022 Olympics? Do these players head back to North America and pick up where they left off in their lives? Will China continue to try and improve their born-and-trained players during the four years between Olympic Games or will they simply rely upon North American players with Chinese heritages?

The Chinese government wanted into the CWHL to try and improve its players in a faster way than developing them against one another, but it found out the harsh reality of not funding sport when the Chinese teams were basically carried by the foreigners. It now seems to be scrambling to plug the holes in the dam it discovered with North American-trained players because it realizes that this ambitious dream would be a nightmare if significant reinforcements weren't found and recruited immediately. The fact that the government is just realizing this now shows how short-sighted they were when it came to this Olympic dream, and that's something that should be noted moving forward.

I take nothing away from the players who are jumping at the opportunity to play for their newly-adopted country of heritage. It's a chance to go to the Olympics as an athlete, and that opportunity likely wouldn't have presented itself had they not pursued this opportunity. They're taking advantage of a loophole created by the International Olympic Committee, and they shouldn't be penalized or criticized for that.

But if the Chinese women's hockey team is just North American-born players with Chinese heritage, is it really a Chinese team at all? Something about that seems wrong to me, and it's a loophole that may need to be revisited since it seems that some governments are using the rule simply to field a competitive team. A handful of players? Ok. An entire 25-player roster? C'mon.

If you're looking for good hockey, head down to Father David Bauer Arena this week. I guarantee the hockey will be excellent, and there will be some players who stand out on both sides of the ice. The Shenzhen team you see likely won't be the final roster for the 2022 Olympics, but there could be a number of players from both sides who will wear Chinese colours in future Olympics!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

No comments: