If things pan out the way new Cowichan Valley Capitals majority owner Ray Zhang has envisioned, the Cowichan Valley could end up helping China become a hockey power.
Zhang, the Beijing businessman whose purchase of the B.C. Hockey League club was finalized earlier this month, admires the Canadian hockey culture and wants to replicate it in China. With Beijing set to host the Winter Olympics six years from now, he feels there is no time like the present to start the process.
“I feel it’s the right time for both countries,” Zhang said.
Not only has the Chinese government started to put more support behind ice hockey due to the upcoming Olympics, but the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League has expanded into Beijing for the 2016-17 season with new team Kunlun Red Star, and a Chinese league with a cap of 50 international players is set to start a year from now.
The Chinese men’s national team sits 37th in the International Ice Hockey Federation rankings for 2016, and will need to make strides if it wants to contend in 2022. Although the host country isn’t guaranteed a berth in the Olympic hockey tournament, South Korea was able to lobby successfully for inclusion in the 12-team tournament in 2018, and China hopes to follow suit.
Traditionally more popular in the northeastern cities of Harbin and Qiqihar, hockey has slowly made inroads in the rest of the country in recent years.
“When my son started, there were only about 200 players in Beijing and 300 in China,” Zhang said. According to the IIHF, there are currently 1,225 registered players out of the country’s 1.3 billion people.
A hockey fan since his son, Simon Chen, started playing in 2003, Zhang had to go through a four-month ordeal in order to acquire the team, the first time someone from China has purchased an overseas hockey franchise. All capital investments using money from China need approval from the government and national bank, and no one could understand why he was interested in buying a money-losing enterprise. He had to explain his longterm plan to get them on board.
Although it isn’t unusual for young Chinese players, like Chen, to play high school hockey in the U.S. or Canada, when they return to China, they go back to a program that is “going in the wrong direction.” Zhang thinks taking the family-oriented Canadian hockey culture back to China will turn Chinese hockey around. His vision involves setting up camps and academies in Canada — most likely on Vancouver Island — to help bridge the two countries.
Although the final roster hasn’t been announced, Chen appears set to line up on defence for the Capitals when the puck drops on the 2016-17 BCHL campaign. Born in 1997, Chen went to high school at the Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts. When he started there, his family didn’t realize that the varsity team was entirely recruited, although he managed to get a tryout and ended up being the only player out of 22 on the roster that wasn’t recruited. Chen was the first Chinese-born player on the Brooks School team. He also played for China at the World U18 championships Div. IIB in 2014-15 and is hoping to play for the U20 team this season.
According to Zhang, hockey is Chen’s passion.
“He loves hockey,” Zhang said. “We never push him. I feel if a young kid loves to do something, why not support him?”
Chen has never had illusions of playing in the NHL or even the American Hockey League — “We were never thinking he could play professional hockey,” Zhang said — but he has two dreams: to play college hockey and to play for China in the 2022 Olympics.
Zhang is quick to point out all the benefits of hockey, beyond just being active. For young people like his son, hockey helps prepare them for the real world, and instills leadership and confidence.
“Hockey brings something besides hockey, something more important than hockey itself,” he said. “In the locker room, they learn how to deal with other players. With no adults, they close the door, and it’s the children’s world.”
As for the Capitals, Zhang knows they will be young this season, but hopes they will turn into a contender down the road
“I’d like to stabilize the team, then next season see some improvement,” he said, adding that he’d like to take them on a tour of China in the future as well.