Hockey a slow grow in China

ADAM WAZNY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:02 AM ET

SELKIRK -- Jorma Siitarinen is experiencing culture shock.

Not during his time in Manitoba for the 2007 World Women's Hockey Championship this week, but rather in his position as head coach of the Chinese national women's hockey team. Coming from a hockey-loving country like Finland, where the game is a part of life, he's having a hard time coming to grips with where his adopted country is on the hockey landscape.

The game is starting to grow in China. Slowly. Painfully slow for Siitarinen.

"It's very difficult to say," the coach said prior to his club's first game against Kazakhstan last night in Selkirk. "They are building new ice rinks ... but hockey is not (popular) in China. And we have few players, that's the biggest problem. On our team, all together, is about 26 players. They are young."

As of 2005, there were just 150 players registered to play women's hockey in China, but Siitarinen said that if you tally up the current team and the young players coming up to challenge for a spot, the number is about 40 women's hockey players who could suit up for the national team. In a country with more than 1.3 billion people, that shows just where the game is in China.

There is a benefit to the small registry, though. Taking centralization to a whole new level, the team is together for 11 months in the Northern China city of Harbin and practice once a day. They live together for most of the week and are given one day to spend time with their families, as most of the players are originally from Harbin.

There, girls who are interested in taking up the game usually are exposed to it at a sports school -- an educational facility which pumps out high calibre athletes for the country.

"The team is coming (along), so that's very important," said forward Linuo Wang.

Siitarinen, who joined the Chinese women's program last year, said the turnover of players, older skaters moving on, replaced by younger legs, in recent season has hurt the Chinese program. He laughs when asked what needs to be done to increase hockey's popularity in the populous country. The process is so daunting, he doesn't even know where to start.

"You are from Canada, I am from Finland -- we know what we do," he said, noting that hockey is very expensive to play in China. "I hope (it's starting to build), but basketball is very strong, volleyball, football. They are not really (interested) in hockey. It is very difficult.

"We have everything there, but when you have only 25 players and you have no fight for positions, everybody knows they're going to play. They are no try-outs because there are so few players."

China will wrap up its round robin play with a game against the Americans tonight (7:30 p.m.).


Videos

Photos