VIERUMAKI – Following a number of barren years, former national team captain Rui Sun is aiming to revive Chinese women's hockey back to its former glory.
In 1992, a nine-year-old Harbin girl named Rui Sun got inspired by a generation of trailblazing female hockey players who became the first Chinese national team to play at the top division of a World Championship. Coming of age, Sun was to play an integral part in China's continued success as she featured in eight top-level World Championships and two Winter Olympics between 1999 and 2013. Having recently started a new chapter in her hockey life, she now hopes to inspire others with a new outlook of the game in her home country.
Speaking shortly after an ice session educating instructors for the Learn to Play program, which was a part of the 2015 IIHF hockey Development Camp in Vierumaki, she revealed her lofty ambitions for her visit to Finland.
"I am here to learn as we want to implement a similar program around the whole of the country," said Sun, who today works as head coach of China's U18 women’s national team while also coaching kids in her home city of Harbin.
"Here in Vierumaki everything is very professional," she said. "I have been here in the past as a player but being here as a coach I try to listen and observe as my level of English is not that good. I personally like the small-rink work which has been instructed to us as it would work well in China where we don't have as many players as in other countries."
When Sun first picked up the game at the tender age of five and half in Northeast China, she recalled how she was the odd one out among a group of boys. With currently around 200 female players all over China, 50 of those in Harbin, the low participating numbers is just one of a number of reasons for the plight of the women's game in China.
"For us hockey is also a very expensive sport, so our families can't afford to pay for it. But also the skill level of the Chinese players is not that high," she said.
Sun's comments strikes a chord with the departing shots supplied by the myriad of foreign coaches whom have been at the helm of China's women's national team this century. One such was Finnish head coach Jorma Siitarinen, who was on the bench for China during the 2007 Women's World Championship in Winnipeg and Selkirk. Despite guiding the Middle Kingdom to a commendable sixth-place finish, he left after just eight months in charge. Siitarinen also lamented at a culture of incessant practises, where the players were willing to practise three times a day between Monday to Saturday, but where quantity were not necessarily converted to a step up in quality.
Sun represented China during many memorable moments such as the 2008 Women’s World Championship held in her home city of Harbin while also scoring at both the 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics. But she lifted out the 2007 Women’s World Championship in Canada under Siitarinen's tutelage as her favourite memory from an esteemed international career.
"We played with just two lines for most of that tournament back in 2007 and we were quite nervous to go down, but the coach helped us a lot," she said of her playing days when seeing the world also opened her eyes.
"We travelled a lot during the years when I was in the national team," she said. "I've learned so much from the teams and coaches we played for and against. I think the old coaches we have in China are good, but I would also like a see a change in how we practise and also on the mental side."
Seventh at the first IIHF Women’s World Ranking in 2005, China have ten years later plummeted down to 16th place. With its women's team in the end losing their battle against relegation in 2009, they suffered another demise two years later and have since been languishing in the third tier at the Women's World Championship Division I Group B. While the world ranking suggests China to be at its lowest ebb with its women's hockey program, changes might soon be around the corner.
On 31st July this year, the International Olympic Committee will select the host city for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. With China's capital Beijing being in contention in a two-horse race with Almaty in Kazakhstan, Sun believes a vote in China's favour would bring drastic changes from top to bottom, which would help kick-start China's hockey program on all levels.
"I would be very happy and proud if the 2022 Winter Olympics would come to China, and it would make the game more popular with more kids being interested to play the game in China," she said.
China, with a population of over 1.3 billion people, has of late seen most of the progress in hockey made on the men's side. With a team, China Dragons, competing in the Asia League Ice Hockey, this year also saw China's men's national team win gold at the World Championship Division II Group B while Andong Song became the first Chinese-born player selected in the NHL draft by the New York Islanders.
But still it is in women's hockey the only success at the international stage has been achieved so far. Should Beijing be selected as the 2022 hosts, Sun, who since last year works as head coach of the U18 women’s national team, is well aware of what is required to one day be the mainstay of an Olympic team.
"They are not ready, the level of skill is not there yet," she said. "But if we would get the Olympics more investments will be put on these players for training camps and test themselves against other countries, so they will be better," she said while also mentioning how the work done in countries like Japan could also be studied closer in order to push forward the development.
Whatever the outcome of the IOC vote will be at the end of this month, Sun is set to continue working for the better of Chinese women's hockey, and she insists continuing visits to Vierumaki should be an integral part of their development.
"I would like to come here to Vierumaki every year, but it is the national association who decides who is coming," she said. "But I would like more Chinese coaches to come here and learn, even if they would not understand the language, but just to see it with their own eyes which can open them up for new ideas."