Hutong dwellers will surely do double takes this weekend, as Beijing’s hockey lovers skate and stick handle their way across Houhai lake.
"Many Chinese come by to check out the festivities. When you mix music, beer and food with a bunch of foreigners skating around, it’s a pretty cool sight,” says Curtis Dracz, the general manager of Center Ice Asia, which is coordinating its third annual Houhai Pond Hockey Tournament on Friday evening and all day Saturday.
Greg MacIsaac – a longtime participant in the tournament who is both playing and refereeing this year – agrees that the event is a unique spectacle for Chinese attendees.
“The Chinese already know that Canadians love winter sports, especially hockey,” MacIsaac says. “They see, in our Houhai tournament, our desire to showcase the sport that we love to them. I’ve had some Chinese come up to me later and thank us for playing. They genuinely seem appreciative to see it first hand.”
And while local Beijingers – along with the throngs of expat fans that show up to cheer the players on every year – may be intrigued to see Canada’s favorite pastime juxtaposed with a backdrop of Chinese hutong rooftops, Dracz says the community’s leaders were not so easily impressed.
"Negotiating ice time and fees with the local municipality on a famous lake was a bit of a challenge,” Dracz says, adding: "I don’t think they knew what to expect the first year, but each year seems to become a little easier. We’ve now developed a strong relationship.”
The tournament will be comprised of 120 players on 16 teams from the Center Ice Asia affiliated Beijing International Ice Hockey League (Center Ice also organizes toddler skating programs, children’s skating lessons, figure skating lessons, and more throughout the winter at its Haotai Ice Sports Centers on Xinglong Gongyuan Chaoyang Lu and at the Quanfa Garden North Gate).
Dracz says even the Chinese spectators who are somewhat familiar with the sport may be surprised by pond hockey’s unique variations. Hyper competitive elements like checking and slap shots are barred (in part because of a lack of professional protective equipment), and a typically small nets are used with no goalie to safeguard them.
“Our tournament is recreational, so it’s more about the experience of playing on a famous lake in the middle of Beijing,” Dracz says, adding this relaxed format can be very refreshing for the players and the fans. He adds: ”Having fun and meeting new people is key.”
MacIsaac says this more causal approach is actually the sport’s purest form, adding: "Pond hockey is very popular in Canada, and it is where most Canadians learned how to skate and play. It’s really a chance to enjoy the true roots of the game. It harks back to every player’s boyhood."
Although Canadians make up the bulk of the participants, the tournament also features many other hockey savvy players from Finland, the US, Japan, Mongolia and other locales, along with a growing, albeit still small, number of Chinese players.
"Not too many Chinese people compete in the tournament, although we will have a team made up of Chinese nationals this year,” Dracz says, adding that he hopes more and more Chinese players will continue to join.
Dracz says such events allow locals to partake in an exotic pastime, while also helping expats settle into their new home. "The tournament has become an event for foreigners to relive their pond hockey memories from back home. Pond hockey, as well as our league, is a home away from home. It’s kept a lot of guys in China way past their anticipated time frame.”
The Houhai Pond Hockey Tournament will begin on Friday (Jan 23) at 7pm at Shichahai (the portion of Houhai lake, near the Starbucks), followed by an after party at The Hockey Bar. Saturday’s first games begin at 8am near the Dongming Hutong entrance, and continue all afternoon, followed by a banquet at Lodora Station and an 8pm after party at The Hockey Bar. For more information, contact Center Ice Asia here.
This post first appeared on theBeijinger.com on January 20, 2015