AUCKLAND – The Olympic Games has been the spark that has lifted Chinese ice hockey to new heights and helped them gain promotion to the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A.
China remained unbeaten and was the dominant team at the week-long tournament at the Paradice Ice Rink in the Auckland region in New Zealand.
“China is staging the Olympic Winter Games in 2022,” head coach Jiang Hu said. “To play well at the Olympics we need to put in a lot of effort and improve our team to a very high level. That is very important to us at this time.”
Winning the tournament, China is ranked 35th overall in the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program and has a lot to improve to be able to compete at an Olympic tournament.
At the Division II Group B level it worked well. In the round-robin competition China beat Israel 5-2, New Zealand 5-2, DPR Korea 8-3, Turkey 7-2 and Mexico 3-2.
The final points were: China 15, New Zealand 12, Israel 9, Mexico 3, DPR Korea 3, Mexico 3, Turkey 3.
The gold medal and promotion to the higher grade was important to China.
“We have put in a lot of effort in training and in all the games,” Hu explained. “The team management and the players are very happy about this and are very satisfied.
“We have received a lot of respect from our opponents, and that is very pleasant for us.”
There is a lot of excitement in China about the 2022 Winter Olympics and the national and local governments are backing the national ice hockey programme.
“Because we are holding the Olympics all the local programmes and the local and national hockey teams are being supported,” Hu said.
“The Olympic Games is bringing more attention to ice hockey.”
But the Chinese head coach and his team are very aware of the responsibility that rests on their shoulders.
“We need to perform to bring rewards back to our local government,” Hu said.
There is little doubt that Chinese hockey is on a steep rising curve. Between 2009 and now the team was ranked 34th to 38th and hopes to get back to higher levels.
Beijing made its mark on world sport when the 2008 Summer Olympics were held in China. Two of these arenas will be used for ice hockey in 2022 one of them already hosting new KHL team Kunlun Red Star.
“There are a lot of other good players outside this team training inside China,” Hu said. “Players are putting more effort into their work to get selected in national teams and they are very enthusiastic about this.”
It is the support from national and local government that has played an important role in China’s improvement.
“To help us the local government has organised a lot of competitions. We have never had this type of support before,” Hu said.
China’s biggest tests at the championships came in the first two games against Israel and New Zealand. They won both games 5-2.
There was a similar pattern in both games with the scores level at two-all after two periods. China then took control to score three more goals in the final period.
The Ice Blacks were fired up for the game and scored the first goal in each of the first two periods. China only equalized by scoring on power plays at the end of both periods.
“New Zealand was the toughest game for us and gave us a good fight,” Hu said. “But our players did not give up even when we got behind.”
China plays an efficient game at speed and is skilled at making the power plays count. Four goals were scored from power plays against DPR Korea and three against Turkey.
There was a lot of width in the Chinese play and their forwards move at speed to pressure the defence. They had the ability to strike quickly.
During this tournament the Chinese were more physical than they used to be. They played with more intensity and have the ability to move quickly from defence into the attacking zone.
The player statistics illustrate the depth in the Chinese squad. Jiachang Boa, the face-off leader with 76.92 percent, was the only Chinese player to top the list in any key area. But there were enough others in the top-10 to give China the edge.
The highest placed were goalkeeper Zehao Sun in second place with 136 saves from 148 shots at goal and defenceman Mingxi Yang with five scoring points.
Another key Chinese player was captain Ling Chen who was third on the table with four assists.
The Chinese goal scoring leaders were Cheng Zhang and Hao Zhang with four goals and two assists.
The other key face-off player in the team was Rudi Ying, who was the scoring leader at the U20 World Championship Division III that was also held in New Zealand, at Dunedin, with 19 points and was named the best forward by the directorate then. He plays for Kunlun Red Star in the Kontinental Hockey League. New Zealand
The Ice Blacks probably had its best prepared team since it won the Division III title in 2009. But it was up against a Chinese team that has Olympic aspirations.
“It was one of the best teams we’ve had in my time,” captain Bert Haines, who first played for New Zealand in 2010, said. “We were well prepared and this was shown by the way we matched China for 60 minutes. It was the top ranked team.
“We could have won. There were just a couple of plays that opened up that game. It was much tighter than the final score would indicate.
“We came back well to beat Israel and that was a must win game for us. We were able to dictate play for most of that game.”
The Ice Blacks beat Turkey 4-1, lost to China 5-2 and beat Israel 5-2, Mexico 4-2 and DPR Korea 8-1.
The games against Israel and Mexico were hard fought and brought out the best in the maturing Ice Blacks team under new head coach Maru (Stacey) Rout.
The gold medal had been conceded to China after they beat the Ice Blacks in the second game. The next two games against Israel and Mexico defined New Zealand’s place at the championships.
The team wanted the silver medal and came out with all guns blazing in the first period against Israel and led 3-0 after just 15 minutes.
It was the game in which 19-year-old Jacob Ratcliffe came of age and scored a hat trick of goals. He scored six goals and shared top spot on the championship table.
Ratcliffe has jet propulsion on skates and this enables him to jump on any chance to score goals. He has the potential to become a super star.
He grew up in Canterbury and was in the Red Devils team that won the New Zealand League in 2013 and 2014. He made his senior international debut last year.
Mexico caused the Ice Blacks some grief when they came back from a two goal deficit in the first period to be just one goal behind at the end of the second period.
It was Ratcliffe who came to the rescue by scoring his fifth tournament goal with just five minutes left to give the Ice Blacks a two goal cushion.
The Ice Blacks went to Melbourne for pre-tournament training and honed their skills with games against the Melbourne Ice and Northern Mustangs Australian league teams.
“The biggest benefit of going to Melbourne was pre-tournament games against teams that compared in skill with the teams we faced at the world champs,” Haines said.
“We were a new team coming together and learning new systems and were able to try out our systems and use them.”
Haines instilled his high principles into the Ice Blacks.
“Everyone embraced the fact that it is an honour to represent your country at home. We were a great group of guys who came together in a supportive culture.”
It was a big step up by a New Zealand side that had finished fourth at Mexico City last year.
Head coach Maru Rout likes winning and coached the Canterbury Red Devils to three titles from 2012 to 2014.
He has co-opted Anatoli Khorosov, who followed him at the Red Devils, to be assistant coach of the Ice Blacks. Khorosov brings a strong style of Russian and European hockey to the table. It is fast passing and utilizes the whole ice
Rout used to like the more physical North American style of hockey but he now uses a mixed combination of physical and European skills with fast passing and shooting.
The best New Zealand player was Rick Parry who topped the goal keeper list by making 125 saves and conceding just nine goals.
His best performances came in the key games against Israel when he conceded just two goals from 39 attempts and against Mexico when he saved 30 shots and conceded just two goals.
Parry, 29, has been a regular in the Ice Blacks since 2008 and now plays for the Adelaide Adrenaline in the Australian Ice Hockey League.
Two experienced 26-year-olds played a key role in the New Zealand forwards. Chris Eaden was third equal on the table with four assists and Paris Heyd hit three goals.
Heyd played a power forward role on defence and had the ability to take control of a game. He is fast on skates and skilled on the breakaway.
Haines and Andrew Hay were solid defenders who made life easier for Parry in goal. Israel
Israel had to be satisfied with the bronze medal when it was beaten by China and New Zealand with scores of 5-2 in the first and third games. It retained the third spot it filled at Mexico City last year.
Israel beat Mexico 6-2, DPR Korea 9-2 and Turkey 5-0.
The player statistics show that Israel had some elite players but the big problem for American coach Derek Eisler was the lack of depth.
Israel has compulsory military training for two years and eight months and it robs the sport of promising players before they reach their prime.
The best player for Israel at the championship was Elie Klein, 27, who was the scoring leader with 11 points. He scored four goals and had seven assists. He was top of the assist ladder and was runner-up in the face-off table with 76.47 percent.
Ilya Spektor, 20, one of the youngest players, was the joint leading goal scorer with six and was third on the scoring table with nine points.
Daniel Mazour scored a hat trick in the final-round win against Turkey to finish third on the goal-scoring table with five.
Other key players for Israel were defender Michael Kozevnikov and Roey Aharonovich, who is the first Israeli to play in the NCAA College system in the United States. He will play for Neumann University in Pennsylvania. The men’s ice hockey team competes at the Division III. Outside the medals
The three other teams only gained one win and their play was noted for its inconsistency. They just did not have the depth to have back-to-back top performances.
Mexico’s only win came in its first game against DPR Korea, 5-1. But they had strong performances in its last two games to lose narrowly to New Zealand and China.
Mexico lost 3-2 in its final game and held China scoreless in the final period.
The best player was Luis Alberta de la Vega, who was fourth equal on the goal scoring table and filled the same spot on the defencemen scoring table with four goals.
Goalie Alfonso de Alba made 120 saves and only conceded 13 goals to be third on the table.
DPR Korea looked to be a major threat when it thumped Turkey 11-3 with blitzkrieg tactics. Chun Rim Hong scored a hat trick of goals and Pong Il Ri was runner-up on the assists table with five and topped the defencemen’s scoring table with six points.
The young Turkish team that included 13 players from this year’s championship-winning under-20 team could not match it with the big boys and finished last and will be demoted to Division III next year.
The one bright spot was the 1-0 win over Mexico in the third round. Its best player was goalie Tolga Bozaci.
The Directorates best players of the championships were:
Goaltender: Rick Parry (New Zealand).
Defenceman: Michael Kozevnikov (Israel).
Forward: Hao Zhang (China). Click here for scores and stats from the tournament.