Qualifying for 2022 Olympics main goal of ambitious plan
Before the International Ice Hockey Federation considers offering China direct qualification to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics tournament, the country first has to show it deserves it, a top IIHF official said in Beijing on Wednesday.
After watching host South Korea vie with world powers amid sensational support at last month's Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, China's hockey heavyweights are eager to see similar enthusiasm for the home team at the 2022 Beijing Games.
IIHF president Rene Fasel said in Pyeongchang the federation is exploring proposals to qualify both the Chinese men's and women's teams for the 2022 tournament as a way to popularize the sport in the world's most populous country.
Thomas Wu, an IIHF vice-president, confirmed to China Daily that the proposal to qualify the Chinese teams will be officially decided either at the federation's annual congress in May or at the semiannual congress in September.
A long-term commitment to transform the niche sport into a mainstream staple in the buildup to the 2022 Games and beyond is crucial to earn the nod from the world governing body, said Wu.
"The IIHF's goal is to promote the sport globally and China has huge potential in the game," Wu said on Wednesday.
"We'd love to see the Chinese teams at the 2022 tournament, but we also have to make sure the world-class quality of the Olympic competition won't be compromised, which is always the priority.
"The gap between Team China and the world hockey powers is still quite big, so the most urgent need for China is to improve the competitiveness of its program as fast as possible," said Wu, an entrepreneur and avid ice hockey promoter in Hong Kong.
"The South Korean team (although qualified as the host) proved itself by advancing to the world's top grouping and we hope the Chinese team can rise dramatically as well by 2022," he added.
Bolstered by one American and six Canadian players naturalized without Korean ancestry, South Korea placed second at last year's IIHF Division 1 Group A world championships, the second-tier world title tournament.
South Korea's dual citizenship policy opened the door to recruit foreign talent for the Pyeongchang Games, with the only stipulations being acquisition of a Korean passport and playing in the country two years before the Olympics.
The Chinese Ice Hockey Association has a more localized method of drafting players with Chinese ancestry through overseas tryouts.
Foreign-born players first have to be from families with Chinese roots and then must have at least two consecutive seasons representing a Chinese team after changing citizenship in order to be eligible to represent the country.
"From the IIHF's point of view, this is better because the players have a bond with the country they represent," said Wu.
"For China, we know we have a lot of work to do in a short time. But we also want to insist that our team is a Chinese team.
"It's respectable. It's something that will be supported by the international hockey family. We want to build hockey in China－not just do well in 2022, but as a longer-term project."
Currently, Shanghai-based Kunlun Red Star plays in the professional Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League while its female affiliate plays in the seven-team Canadian Women's Hockey League.
Other Chinese teams are playing in minor and junior leagues in Russia, and individual players are competing for college and university teams in Canada and the United States.
Organized by Beijing Municipal Sports Bureau and Beijing Hockey Association, the capital's current youth league has attracted a record 2,554 children on 162 teams.
"We've seen many positive signs that the game is growing in popularity and public recognition in recent years," said CIHA president Cao Weidong.
"Hopefully to qualify for and perform decently at the Beijing Olympics in 2022 will galvanize the momentum for sustainable development."