How the future of Chinese hockey ended up in Long Island

Team Beijing growing from North American experience (3:56)

An unlikely partnership between the New York Islanders and the Beijing Hockey Association could lead to the future of Chinese hockey. (3:56)

On a chilly January day in Long Island, New York, the Beijing junior hockey team was skating across the ice with fire.

After losing its past four games in the United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL) by a combined score of 5-45, Team Beijing rattled off two third-period goals against the P.A.L. Junior Islanders to take a 4-3 lead with 10 minutes left.

A few minutes later, the Islanders answered with an even-strength goal to tie the score, forcing Team Beijing to hold on and try to avoid yet another loss. That lasted until the Islanders netted a game-winner with just 19 seconds left, capping off a 5-4 victory.

The young Chinese players left the ice disheartened, though not too dispirited. After all, their coaches -- Bernie Cassell, the Islanders' skills development coach, and Wang Guocheng -- said it was their best performance of the season.

"We need this kind of game to actually become better," Wang said.

At the time the team was 1-29, with most losses coming by five goals or more. Thousands of miles away from home, 18 teenage Chinese players -- Team Beijing -- were participating in a grand experiment to revolutionize the country's hockey program before the 2022 Olympics in Beijing-Zhangjiakou.

In order to help grow hockey talent in the country, the Beijing Hockey Association announced a partnership with the New York Islanders, bringing players from across a mix of northern Chinese cities to New York last fall as part of a brand new project. Before becoming Team Beijing in America, they hadn't played together before. The young talent also got access to the Islanders' staff, like Cassell, and training facilities on Long Island.

In the locker room postgame, Cassell asked his players to look up.

"No matter where you are in future, remember today's game," he said.

That has been the story of Chinese hockey so far: Searching for hope amid incremental disappointments.

The challenge to compete

As part of its Olympic bid, President Xi Jinping and the Chinese government pledged a "three-hundred-million-person winter-sports" plan, hoping to boost its tepid participation numbers from less than 2 percent to 22 percent. Hockey, one of the most popular sports in the Winter Olympics, is a key part of that strategy. However, the country still has a long way to go to become competitive in the sport.

The Chinese hockey teams from the junior clubs to the top senior squad are not playing well. The national team has been in Division II for a long time -- the second-lowest division for the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships -- and the under-20 team is doing even worse. It lost to Turkey in January at the world juniors in New Zealand, leading to a demotion to lowly Division III.

In a game against the Russian junior team last year, the Chinese junior team lost 35-0. And during the 2017 Winter Universiade, the men's Chinese hockey team finished last out of 12 teams after being outscored 52-0 in three group-play games. The women's team did better -- finishing fourth out of seven teams -- but still did not qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics. (For the Olympics, the IIHF takes the top teams in its world rankings -- eight for men's hockey, five for women's hockey -- along with a few qualifiers from tournaments leading up to the games as well as the host country.)

Team Beijing hoped to change that history by competing in a 44-game season with the Elite-level teams from the USPHL. The Elite-level is the second-best division for the Tier III junior hockey league, which is not as prestigious as top-tier junior leagues such as the USHL or NAHL, but does feature some players who go on to play college hockey.

Despite all the losses -- Team Beijing's lone win came in a shootout against the Palm Beach Hawks -- the young players learned quickly.

"The physical contact here is really frequent," said forward Zhuang Xinyu, who hails from QiQihar, China. "In China we don't see that often."

Along with practices and workouts, the Chinese players also had English classes every week. Zhuang was proud of his progress from not being able to speak English at all to now being able to count from 1 to 100.

Making progress

Team Beijing ran into a few challenges at first. One of the goalies brought over to the U.S. was too young for the league, so they found Jeremy Haffner, a local Long Island kid, to play goalie. At 17, he's the youngest goalie in the league.

Haffner had never met anyone from China before, but now he was repping a jersey with "Beijing" across the front. Haffner went through all the defeats with his Chinese teammates, and he witnessed their progress.

"They work really hard," he said. "We almost can compete with every other team.

"We sometimes led the game. But we lost lots of scores in the third quarter [period] because of tiredness." Haffner doesn't speak any Mandarin, but he and his teammates learned to communicate with the help of Google Translate.

"I did not find many differences between us and them," he said. "They play video games as well. On the ice, you can't know we are Chinese or Americans. We all belong to the Beijing team."

Jeffery Gu, an Asian American player from Connecticut, also joined Team Beijing before the season. Gu has been skating since he was 6 and started to learn hockey at age 9.

"As an Asian American, playing with these Chinese players I can have a better understanding of my parents' history and our traditions," Gu said. "It means a lot to me."

Gu also played the interpreter role between Coach Cassell and the other players, explaining the coaches' thoughts to the other players while also bringing up suggestions to the coaches.

"They've made great progress in both tactics and techniques," Cassell said. "It's very hard for them to understand that much since they come from a whole different training system."

And this North American hockey fellowship was also vital for the Chinese coaches.

"I'm learning as well," Wang said. "I'm learning the advanced hockey concepts and tactics just like the kids. We are honored to play such high-level games."

The young players train hard. They also eat a lot. In order to make sure they take care of their diet, the Beijing Hockey Association hired cooks and a full staff to prepare food for the players.

"These kids eat tons of food," said Zhang Qingxi, the main cook. "Lamb, pork, beef, whatever, I just have to change the menu regularly."

Jon DiFlorio, the Islanders' fitness coach, helped track the athletic progress of each player on Team Beijing. Some players even gained 40 pounds after a few months to help adjust to the physical play in North America.

"Everyone changed a lot," DiFlorio said. "Most of them could only squat with 30 or 40 pounds. Now they can do 110 pounds easily."

All eyes on the Olympics

Although the team won only one game, they changed a lot in six months.

"To let our kids watch and learn is the most important gain we have during this trip," Wang said.

The group will go back to China, bringing their experience and growth to the other local teams. The Chinese Hockey Association has decided to send two more teams -- one under-18 and one under-20 -- to the U.S. and Russia, again playing in lower-level leagues to help develop more talent for a future Olympic squad.

Wang wants his team to make a difference for the sport when they return to China. For them, it's all about the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing-Zhangjiakou.

"I hope they can be our next generation of the national hockey team," Wang said.