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Junior Sharks rule the rink

The Shanghai Youth Hockey Organization boasts more than 50 players and an elite team, the Junior Sharks, that regularly tours China and abroad. New players and beginners are welcome, reports Sam Riley.

A junior ice hockey league that started in Shanghai almost four years ago with just six players has grown into a competition taking in players from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Founded entirely by volunteer parents, the Shanghai Youth Hockey Organization now has more than 50 local players and an elite team that tours regularly in China and abroad.

This touring team, the Junior Sharks, is one of the best junior ice hockey teams on Chinese mainland and recently won two of its three games when it traveled to Taiwan. It remained undefeated during three games against a visiting team from Harbin, Heilongjiang Province.

One of the league's founders, Chairman Robert Aspell, says no one expected the league that caters for players as young as six to have grown so fast.

"The development of the sport here has exceeded our expectations, if you had asked us two or three years ago whether we would be doing what we are doing now, it would have been absolutely impossible," Aspell says.

"We have been able to do this because of a nucleus of committed parents helping out and most important, a group of kids that love the sport."

Players are predominately expats but the league hopes to attract more local players to the sport.

The Junior Sharks were undefeated in a tournament in October involving teams from Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore.

There are plans to expand the league, the Asia Youth Hockey League, to include teams from Japan and South Korea.

In a second tournament in Beijing at the end of January, the Junior Sharks played against teams in Beijing and Harbin and were defeated in extra time in the final.

Aspell says there are plans for a tournament in Shanghai in June and members of league are looking for corporate sponsors to support the expansion of the league and a regular international playing schedule.

In Shanghai, junior players between the ages of six and 10 play and train at the Wujiaochang Champion Rink at the Bailian New Era Mall in Yangpu District.

Older players aged 11 to 13 play at the home of the China Sharks at the newly opened University International Ice Hockey Arena in Songjiang District. The traveling team also trains on Wednesday nights.

Finn Jukka Kantola is one of a small band of volunteer parents involved in the league.

His three sons play in the league, Eerik, six, Oskari, 10 and Henrik, 12. Kantola says the league's unique international makeup was one of its great strengths.

"It is wonderful that children from all over the world can play hockey against each other, we have children from South Korea, North America and Europe," he says. "To see all these different players playing together and cooperating is great."

Despite having a range of experiences, including players from traditional ice hockey nations who may have grown up with the sport, the league welcomes beginners.

"Everyone can play ice hockey. If kids have never played, they can start with the beginners where we have divided kids into groups so they can play at their own level," Kantola says.

At first the focus is on skating skills. There are two Chinese coaches, including a former member of China's national team.

"We have good coaches taking care of the kids," says Kantola.

On weekends, league players will train on Saturday and play a game on Sunday. The younger kids play in four teams in four-a-side game with modified rules.

Older kids play on a full-scale rink. There are about 25 regular players. Fifteen of the most advanced members play in the traveling team.

Juniors play on weekend mornings at 8:45-9:45am and older players from 10am to midday.

For more information, contact Robert Aspell at 1502-1334-070.


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