Many Saturday mornings this year, we have risen before dawn and loaded our car with hockey gear. We drive to a rink, joining other families who have made similarly groggy treks to freeze for a few hours. From the looks of it, we could be in any North American city or suburb, but, of course, we are not. We are in Beijing, and until this last year, I never thought my China-raised kids would ever participate in hockey.
Hockey had been growing phenomenon in my Western Pennsylvania home ever since my childhood. It really took off after Pittsburgh’s team, the Penguins, drafted the greatest Canadian player to come along in a decade, Mario Lemieux, winning two Stanley Cups with him. The flames of the region’s hockey passion were further fanned in 2005, when the team drafted the newest greatest Canadian player, Sidney Crosby.
When that 2005 team held their first open practices, I took then two-year-old Myles with me to witness the genesis of the Crosby era. Myles was spellbound by the blur of skates and sticks, breaking his focus occasionally to look up with a smile of disbelief. “Hockey-Crosby,” was all he could talk about for weeks.
Only a few months later, though, Myles and I packed off for Shenzhen, a city with no winter as we understood it. I was resigned to leaving hockey back in Pittsburgh.
However, this would be a China story, and the China story would often be about change.
During our time in Shenzhen, shopping malls started installing ice rinks. There was one a short cab ride from our neighborhood. Some friends offered to take Myles on ice for me as I was pregnant (and I’m a terrible skater). My son’s early skating lessons were from women who were from Indonesia and Jiangxi, neither place known for icy weather.
Later we moved to Beijing, where parks around the city groomed their lakes during the coldest months. Changping Park’s pond was where Myles kept up with skating and Brigid took her first tentative strides in the tiniest skates many commented they had ever seen.
It was there, too, we would encounter a boy a little older than Myles, speeding around the ice in full hockey kit. He and his dad were amused by Brigid’s interest in what he was doing, so they indulged her by letting her try a stick and puck. She was ridiculously happy pushing around that puck.
From that boy we learned that even for the talented and motivated, there were few youth hockey teams around Beijing. None near Changping, but for him and his family, it was worth the effort and travel to seek them out. He has since left for school in Canada, ascending in the junior leagues there. Hockey, still, remained out of reach for us.
The greatest change was yet to come.
In 2015, China was awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics. Xi Jinping declared that the country would grow winter sport participation to 300 million people. With this came increased opportunities for the quadrennial event’s slate.
Seemingly overnight, hockey appeared everywhere. The Russian KHL expanded into China with the Kunlun Red Stars. This was followed by two women’s teams in Shenzhen, NHL exhibition games, and the arrival in several Chinese cities of First Shift, the Canadian introductory program.
Brigid joined Beijing’s First Shift this year, receiving the proper hockey instruction I had never thought possible in China. Through First Shift, she would learn to play and enjoy the sport just like if we were back in Pittsburgh.
Saturdays since have felt too cold and too early, and yet, more than we had hoped.
Photo: Jennifer Ambrose
This article appeared on p45 beijingkids’ November 2017 issue.
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