QIQIHAR, China – Mengying Zhang is one of the top Chinese women’s hockey players already at a young age. Two years ago when she was just 16, she saw the national team only from the bench in the Vancouver Olympics, but now she has already notched two goals and four points before the gold medal game of the 2012 IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia in her hometown of Qiqihar.
The IIHF’s Andy Ecker talked to her on the off day prior to the final game between China and Japan.
Tell us a bit about hockey here in Qiqihar.
The men’s teams in Qiqihar and Harbin play more or less at the same level while there is a big difference between those cities when it comes to women’s hockey. Harbin’s women’s team plays at a higher level than the one here in Qiqihar.
Do you travel a lot to other regions in China to play games, or mostly in the province Heilongjiang?
Hockey is mainly played in the north-eastern part of the country. Therefore games are played in the Heilongjiang province.
Tell us about your hockey season. What does the calendar look like for you with the Chinese national team, and international and national championships?
The pre-season here starts in June. We have local camps which last two, or up to three months. The first month consists of practice only, and after that we get two off days allowing us to go home and see our families. After that we go abroad for another two months including practising and exhibition games. Furthermore we play eight league games and with the national team we are participating at some invitational tournaments, the Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia and of course the upcoming Women’s World Championship. Overall we are involved in ice hockey in about 10 out of 12 months each year.
At which age did you start to play hockey and what made you want to play this sport?
When I appeared on the ice for the first time I was five. I started figure skating in Qiqihar, but after having done this for one year I stopped practising with the Qiqihar team since my grandfather became kind of personal coach for me. The first time I noticed hockey was when I saw boys and girls play outdoor on a pond. I was getting more curious about hockey since the ice rink where I was practising figure skating was divided into two parts – one for the figure skaters and the other half for ice hockey practices. I was impressed about the game of hockey and therefore I wanted to join a hockey team by myself. This happened at the age of 9.
What do you like most about the game?
I like the different abilities you need to have for this sport. Speed, technique, power and coordination. I think ice hockey is made for brave people and I want to be a brave player.
Were you able to watch hockey on TV growing up?
Unfortunately I had no chance to see hockey at all.
Was it easy to find equipment when you started to play hockey and how is it now?
I can only speak for Qiqihar. Here every player joining the women’s team will receive some second-hand equipment for free sponsored by the president of the club.
Has hockey become more popular amongst girls of your age?
I think yes. Nowadays both the clubs in Harbin and Qiqihar have two women’s teams while back in the days when I started to play they just had one women’s team each.
Do you have a favourite hockey player?
Yes. My favourite hockey player is Alexander Ovechkin. His skills and his power are very impressing while in women’s hockey my favourite players are Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser and Erika Lawler from the U.S. Both players are very skilled and brave.
What has been your most memorable moment in hockey so far?
The game we won 2-0 against Japan at the 2008 Olympic qualification tournament in Shanghai. This win opened the gates to the Olympic Games in Vancouver.
How was it for you to be at the Vancouver Olympics at the age of 16? How did you like the tournament, the atmosphere and the city?
Unfortunately I was only at the bench and didn’t get the chance to play. Nevertheless I was sitting on the bench very nervously and following the games of my team. I liked the atmosphere over there very much, but we had to spend the whole time at the Olympic village, so I cannot say much regarding the city.
After two years with a Finnish coach you’ve got a Russian head coach as of this season. Is there a big change in style for your team?
The new coach is requesting much more power and speed to play our game. This has changed our system a lot and we are slowly adapting to the changes now.
Tell us a bit about your camp and tour in Canada. Where there any special experiences?
The whole team has been invited by Fran Rider (Ontario Women’s Ice Hockey President) to pay a visit at his cottage by the lake. This was wonderful and we had the chance to spend a relaxing day at a wonderful place. Also visiting the Niagara Falls has been very impressive for the whole team.
In less than two months you will play at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group B in Great Britain. What are your goals for the tournament and what do you predict?
I don’t really know what to expect, but the goal for us is to win this group and to earn promotion to the A-group. My personal goal is to learn from the opponent players’ skills and adapt them to my play of hockey and become a better player.
What do you do beside hockey?
Most of my time I spend for hockey. For sure I want to improve my skills and become a better hockey player day by day. In my spare time I like singing, surfing on the internet and watching ice hockey videos!
How do you think can women’s hockey grow within China?
It would help if ice rinks were available at schools, even though parents like to see their children study rather than playing ice hockey. Furthermore great tournaments like this Challenge Cup of Asia should be broadcast within whole China. Also a live stream on the internet would raise interest for a lot of Chinese people.