Without any points on board so far and facing Belgium during the final day, the prerequisites for China´s senior men´s team are simple: A regular time win will keep China in the group and instead send the Belgians down to Division IIB next season.
It is a relegation-decider which could have major implications for China in their attempts to assert themselves in the hockey world ahead of hosting the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
In order to speed up the development, twelve members on the Chinese roster currently playing in Division IIA spent most of their season honing their skills deep in the Finnish forests at the Olympic Training Center in Vuokatti, 500 kilometres north of its capital Helsinki.
“When the players first came to Vuokatti and I talked to the players, hockey was all about who scored the most goals. Today, they talk about how to defend and first after that how you score,” said China head coach Juha Nurminen, who worked with the Espoo Blues U20 team when China came calling last September.
Jumping at the chance to work with future Olympic athletes, Nurminen rolled up his sleeves and has since October last year worked intensively with 14 skaters and three goalies from its base in Finland.
“The skill level is a bit different from a Finnish hockey player, but they learned a lot. The players came to Vuokatti with a good attitude and normally we have two sessions on ice per day. First, we work on skills for 75 minutes and then later we work on our game for another 75 minutes. I think there has been a big difference from the middle of October to this day,” he said.
With communication initially being a challenge, Nurminen grew accustomed to speaking through an interpreter and soon threw the Chinese into the deep end with exhibition games against Finnish opponents.
“We won against all the teams we faced from the II-division (fourth level). We then lost in overtime against Haukat Jarvenpaa from Suomi-sarja (third tier) and against the U20 team of the Espoo Blues it got a little bit too hard for us. In all these games we played good ice hockey,” he said.
In Belgrade at the World Championship Division II Group A, it has been a mixed bag of performances so far. In China´s opener, Spain scored an empty netter to win 5-3. They followed it up with an undisciplined 0-7 loss against Croatia. China then gave away a three-goal lead in the final frame against hosts Serbia to lose 5-6. They were at it again when late penalties cost them dearly against Australia who in the end turn the game to edge China 2-3.
In short, a lot of room for improvements for a group of players who in less than three years should be the core of skaters to represent China at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
“It is difficult to say how many of these will play at the Olympics, but most of them that are here should play for China. I don´t know where they will find other players. There are good players in both the U18 and U20 team and they have three years’ time to develop. I cannot say how many will play, but someone will have to play,” said Nurminen.
“Hockey is a sport you need to develop long term, so right now we are doing our best to develop hockey as a sport in schools and that should help the entire country to develop more hockey players in the future,” he said.
Also a prominent player for the Chinese national team, Jiang was at the peak of his powers at the turn of this century with a burgeoning Chinese national team.
“My best memory from playing for China was at the 2000 World Championship C-Pool in Beijing when we got up to the B-Pool. I am glad to have been part of that team that played in that division,” he said about the Chinese national team before it hit a slump in their hockey development.
“At that time we had six to eight good, competitive teams in our national championship. Now we only have three-four. The pool of players have been diminishing drastically, which is the main reason why our hockey in China was going down,” said Jiang, who also works as a coach for one of the country´s leading clubs in player development, Qiqihar in the north-eastern Heilongjiang province.
With a deep insight into the Chinese game, how would Jiang rate his nation´s hockey prospects at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics?
“As the host, we like to show good performances, and since we fought long to host the Olympics, we are trying our best to prepare ice hockey. It will be a long process but we are trying our best to prepare us for it,” said Jiang, who hopes for continued growth in the cooperation between China and Finland.
“We have had a political program in winter sports between China and Finland this year. We are tightly bonded with many winter sports and we hope to extend these programs in order to develop more hockey players. From my point of view, we should continue going to a country with such a high level of ice hockey like Finland and even try to play in a league there. But that will be the decision of the supervisors of the Chinese Ice Hockey Association,” said Jiang.