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May 29, 2014

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Canada battles the World as the puck drops

WHILE it feels like summer outside, it certainly won’t at Anta Feiyang Skating Center on Saturday. Ice hockey players from around the world will take to the ice as Canada plays the World in a game billed as “Hockey Night in Shanghai,” for which Shanghai Daily is the exclusive media sponsor.

Despite hockey’s popularity in North America and northern Europe, it’s still a relatively unknown sport in China. But the Canada versus the World game seems to have captured the imagination of both expatriates and locals in the city. The players, mostly expats, are from the Shanghai Ice Hockey League and come from a wide range of backgrounds.

Alex Rand, 26, from Hamilton, Ontario, joined the Shanghai Hockey Club this year and will be playing in his first “Hockey Night” game. He works for a Canadian trading company as an international business liaison.

“I’m enjoying my rookie season in the league,” Rand tells Shanghai Daily. “My team, The Wingmen, won the league championship this year, so it was a fitting end to an amazing season.”

Rand arrived in Shanghai in August 2013 with his hockey equipment hoping to meet other people who share his love for the sport. In his first year here he’s emerged as a great addition to the hockey scene.

While Rand readily admits none of the guys have the talent of National Hockey League stars like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Drew Doughty or Henrik Lundquist, he says the players are extremely competitive and want to win.

“Make no mistake, once our skates hit that ice Saturday night we are there to compete,” Rand says. “National pride is on the line and the physical intensity will be ramped up. All paying spectators are in for a treat when they come watch the boys go toe to toe.”

Rand’s passion for hockey goes back a long way as he started playing at the age of three. He has played every winter since then. Growing up he traveled across Canada playing in prestigious tournaments.

Hockey places great emphasis on the team element, which means the locker room banter among the guys is often almost as fun as the action on the ice.

“We are all friends and I’m sure both teams will share a few beers after the game,” Rand adds. “That camaraderie is what makes the Shanghai Hockey Club so special.”

The club is the only expat hockey organization in the city encompassing players — average age around 32 — who have played semi professionally to beginners. Club members pay 3,400 yuan (US$544) per season. Rand says it has surpassed all expectations and quickly become the most enjoyable hockey league he has ever competed in.

Stephen Schoenberger, a 26-year-old American who will play for the World team on Saturday, agrees.

“You wouldn’t believe how many guys have said, ‘If it wasn’t for the Shanghai Hockey Club, I would have left Shanghai years ago’,” says Schoenberger, who works for a recruitment company.

The American has lived in the city for four years and played in the last Hockey Night in Shanghai, earning the game’s third star for the World team.

The league has seen considerable changes since its inception 10 years ago. The biggest difference is that they once played on tiny rinks not suited for 5-on-5 hockey.

“The old timers often talk about the good ole days when they didn’t have enough sticks to go around so they would just trade sticks as they got on and off the ice,” Schoenberger says, chuckling.

“Things have changed a lot since then. We now play on a new full NHL-sized rink at Anta Feiyang. It is a great facility and we are incredibly lucky to have it,” he adds.

In the beginning the club only had around 30 players, he says. Now there are around 170 and they look to add about 25 players a year. They come from Canada, USA, Sweden, Finland, Norway, France, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Switzerland, China and Japan.

Recently, a Shanghai team went to Hong Kong to compete in Asia’s biggest ice hockey tournament. For the past three years they have also held Shanghai playoffs and a championship and tried to create a more family-friendly atmosphere.

“We have tried to make the event as fan-friendly as possible,” says the American. “We included events for the fans like the Mascot Game, Chuck-A-Puck, and Sling-Shot bowling where a fan sitting on a sled is shot out of a sling shot on the ice and into a stack of large bowling pins.”

Carley Pulford, executive director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, a sponsor of Hockey Night, says the original idea for the game was to bring a little piece of Canada to the Canadians who live and work in the city.

“Like many Canadians, I spent a lot of my life at the rink, the thought that some Canadian children living here hadn’t watched a live hockey game broke my heart,” says Pulford, who played for 10 years in her hometown of Kamloops, British Columbia.

“At the last Hockey Night in Shanghai, a good friend of mine who has been living here for almost seven years brought her 1-year-old boy to watch the game,” she continues. “She was so excited to be able to dress him up as a fan for Team Canada and to experience the game together with her family. That is what this is all about.”

Schoenberger says he started playing hockey when he first got to Shanghai and it has quickly become one of his favorite things to do. A couple years ago he was voted onto the club’s executive committee and has been involved in running the club ever since.

Rand says the friendships he has made will last a lifetime.

“Coming to Shanghai alone, it was nice to be welcomed into the league by all of its members, and I now have friends from all over the world,” he says.

Off the ice they get together for drinks, barbecues, movies and more.

“This league is like no other because we are all friends even though we are on different teams. We stay after our games to hang out, watch other games, and catch up,” Rand adds.

While more changes are expected in the coming years, Rand and Schoenberger hope the league can still provide the same great level of hockey and fun for everyone who joins.

But come Saturday night, friendships will be set aside for a few hours.

Hockey Night in Shanghai

Date: May 31, 7pm

Address: 201 Yunlian Rd, Pudong

Ticket: 100 yuan

How to get there: Metro Line 6 or 7, Gaoke Road W. Station


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