Ice hockey is not a sport with much of a following in the UK, so when we were persuaded to get our skates on and turn up for Beijing’s annual Hockey Night, we had little idea what to expect.
The event, at the Hokay Ice Arena, has now been running for six years, and features games between local league players representing their countries or regions. A commitment earlier in the day meant we missed the match up between the US and the World (the US won convincingly), but arrived in time for the second game at 5pm, between Canada and Finland.
The area outside the Arena was converted into a festival zone, with food, drink, stalls, games, and a bouncy castle. Having arrived, as we thought, with plenty of time before the game, we were held up in a line to buy food vouchers, then to obtain refreshments, then to get into the arena, then into the rink itself. My advice to anyone attending in future is to get there at least an hour in advance of the start time.
The seating along one side of the rink was packed with noisy and enthusiastic fans, and it was hard to find somewhere to squeeze in, though the atmosphere was friendly. Parents of younger children should be aware there is a gap between the edge of the stand and the perspex wall surrounding the rink, down which an unsupervised small body could easily fall; caution is advised. Take note too that you’ll need to bring warm jumpers, even it’s a beautiful day as it was when we went, because the contrast with the chill of the rink is significant.
We were asked to pick sides on entering the arena, and plumped for our European neighbors the Finns. Either Beijing’s Finnish community is bigger than I thought, or they were virtually all there, as the crowd chanting “Suomi! Suomi!” was numerous and vociferous, many with blue and white painted faces or dyed hair. I was lucky enough to sit next to one of the US players from the earlier game who was able to explain to me some of the more arcane rules and rituals, such as throwing plush chickens onto the ice after the first goal.
Like most sports, it can be difficult to follow for the uninitiated, with the difference between acceptable collisions and foul play particularly hard to pick out. However it’s a very exciting game, the teams sweeping from end to end in a matter of seconds, the puck (and the players) crashing off the barriers with dramatic booms and bangs.
I couldn’t truthfully say I’m a convert to ice hockey as a sport. For someone raised on the free-flowing game of soccer, the constant stop-start is frustrating, and by 7pm, with the third 15 minute period still ongoing, we were back outside enjoying the sunshine. (We missed a thrilling contest in which Canada came from behind to win 4-3.) However we would definitely return to Beijing Hockey Night, to enjoy the passionate but good-natured atmosphere, and the family fun on offer.
Photo: Andrew Killeen