Milbury puts hockey on map in China

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:42 AM ET

As general manager of the New York Islanders, Mike Milbury has been known to move a player or two here and there.

He's taken heat for some those trades, but there's no way his latest deal, involving 34 players, will be anything but a win-win for everybody involved.

Milbury has been the driving force behind bringing two teams of minor hockey players from China to participate in the seventh annual Bell Capital Cup, which gets underway tomorrow.

"I'm anxious to see their faces. I'm just thrilled that this has come to pass," Milbury said yesterday from his home town of Walpole, Mass., where he was being honoured by having his name attached to the local youth tournament.

"I'm actually watching the clock right now. They're due to arrive any minute."

The teams of 9-11-year-olds were due to arrive at Newark Airport yesterday afternoon and bus to Binghamton last night. They're expected to arrive here today and Milbury will be on hand to greet them after flying back to New York last night and here today.

WENT TO CHINA

Milbury's involvement with Chinese hockey started during the lockout when he travelled there to investigate opportunities in the Asian Hockey League for Islanders co-owner Charles Wang, who lived in China until he was 8.

Milbury was touched by what he saw during visits to the cities of Harbin and Qiqihar, population 9.5 million and 5.61 million respectively.

He saw a country that lags behind its Asian competitors in hockey, but had a real love for the game.

"Clearly, they're in need of help and attention," said Milbury. "I was amazed by their passion for the sport. I went to some youth practices and they didn't have helmets or gloves, but their passion was pretty evident."

The Islanders opened an office in Harbin with the mission to support the growth of the sport in China through the promotion of youth programs and the women's national team.

Milbury wrote about his experiences in China for the Islanders' website and ESPN.com and he received calls about his experience there and offers to help out Chinese hockey.

One of those calls came from Senators president Roy Mlakar, who offered his own deal: If Milbury could get a minor hockey team from China to Ottawa, it would be taken care of at the Bell Capital Cup.

After some ferocious fundraising -- aided by Islanders vice-president of communications Chris Botta, who arranged exclusive dinners with Wang, Milbury and Isles coach Steve Stirling that were auctioned off on eBay -- and logistical help from Islanders manager of hockey administration Joanne Holewa, the plan was put in place to have not one, but two teams come here for the Bell Capital Cup.

The teams are the Red Stars from Harbin and the Qiqihar Snow Leopards (A third Chinese team from Beijing is also entered in the Cup).

The teams will attend a reception at the Westin Hotel today, be matched up with their billets for the tournament and, courtesy of Nike-Bauer, each player will receive a spanking new set of equipment (Nike-Bauer will also be shipping another 300 sets of equipment to China for kids there).

"Mike came back from his visit to China last year with a determination to make something happen for these kids," said Wang on the Isles' website.

"He has worked hard, raising money and making sure that a lot of people had an opportunity to contribute to the experience that they will have."

Ten NHL teams have chipped in, Islanders season- ticket holders ... all helping Milbury follow through on Mlakar's idea.

Both teams will play in the Atom House B Division. The Red Stars of Harbin will play their first game at 10:10 a.m. tomorrow morning against the Kanata Ice Wolves at the Corel Centre. Qiqihar will play the South End Storm at 10:30 a.m. at the Ray Friel Centre.

TO TAKE IN ISLES GAME

After competing in the tournament, the teams will return to Long Island for sightseeing and will attend the Islanders-Florida Panthers game Jan. 4. They also have an hour of ice time waiting for them next to the big Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Centre in Manhattan.

"I don't think any of them have travelled too far or been on a plane. I'm sure this is going to be eye-popping for all of them," said Milbury.

"Charles said the only thing I had to do was make this the experience of a lifetime."

Sounds like Milbury is well on his way to pulling that deal off beautifully.


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