CHINA HOCKEY DIARIES
The only time you can walk anywhere in Shenzhen is at night.
One degree south of the Tropic of Cancer, the shores of China’s Silicon Valley are struck with foreign direct investment and typhoons in somewhat equal measure. The humidity rests like a brick canopy on an ever-evolving skyline; five minutes outdoors and you are as soaked as a sprinter might be at the finish of the 100 meter final.
At night, however, the cloak of precipitation abates, and you can begin to appreciate the lush and verdant gardens that break up clusters of carparks and skyscrapers. Walking along the main stretch of road near Shenzhen Universiade Arena, I was struck by the density and variety of green—a romantic feature of playing hockey in the tropics, eclipsed all-too-often by its drawbacks.
More fog was rolling off the ice at Kunlun’s morning skate than on the Moors of North Yorkshire, where tourists pay to get lost in the clouds. Nets were dislodging at the slightest kick—intentional or unintentional, but you can imagine the appeal of the former—resulting in lost minutes of temporary fixes, frustrated players skating in circles to keep their legs warm. Kunlun’s starting goalie made a good-natured joke that he had brought an umbrella to be ready for anything; Traktor Chelyabinsk, their upcoming opponent, had threatened not to attend the games entirely in retribution for preseason drama.
The idea of bringing hockey to China is so often encapsulated in images of presidents shaking hands, but the realities can be awkward—and Kunlun’s opponents are rarely consoled by the esoteric goals of modern diplomacy. And of course, adjusting to subtropical conditions for a sport that began on frozen ponds is hardly an easy task.
Keeping the doors to the rink closed helps, at times—communicating this to security is a mess of cell phones and translation apps and hand motions. The result is that the doors are rarely closed, and the heat seeps in with abandon at the slightest opportunity. A Kunlun executive, in full suit, showed ice crew members how to shovel—feverishly demonstrating the motion during a game as slush endlessly pooled on the soft ice.
But when 6,000 people fill the stands, and the Universiade begins to glow in a kaleidoscope of changing colors against an overcast sky, you may begin to reason with yourself that hockey could belong here as much as it ever belonged to Tampa Bay or Las Vegas. The national anthems of Russia and China roar with the same gravity as they would anywhere else; for a minute, I am transported to the Olympics—either deja-vu or a premonition, as China prepares to host the Winter Games in 2022.
The first time I encountered hockey’s interesting culture clash with China was in Shanghai, early January.
My most vivid memory began with a soft stirring of strings on Yunlian Road at nightfall.
Under the constant assault of oncoming traffic, you might not have heard it for a while. A man in white silk brandished a sword with two red tassels dangling from its pommel. His movements were both honey-soft and decisive, mimicked by five or six women who stood in a semicircle beside him. The choreography was measured and entrancing—an eye in the storm that is Shanghai rush hour. I watched the flow of movement for a long time, and wondered if I could ever be so clear, so settled as to complete this routine with motorbikes racing past my eyes.
The informal tai-chi session was taking place in the parking lot of Feiyang Ice Skating Center, the unofficial-official arena of Kunlun Red Star in Shanghai. As I walked up the stairs to the locker room, the soft sounds dissipated into the metallic whir of the refrigeration plant that kept the rink frozen.
Kunlun’s chef was a wiry, amber-skinned man with the soul of an Italian grandmother. He was acutely worried about whether or not I had eaten. He would open every silver serving tray to show me what was on offer—when he thought something was imperative, he’d point to it aggressively until I took a piece. Who could have ever imagined that we’d be eating in a KHL locker room with chopsticks? What Russian hockey team with NHL draft picks and headline coaches eats lo-mein and bok choy? I thought about this as I attempted to twirl the thick noodles with my chopsticks and failed. The chef was already pointing a fork under my chin like a pistol. On game nights, he made dozens of ham and cheese sandwiches with the crusts cut off for the players between periods. He saved a little box for me in the corner—“for the girl,” he told one of our staff. “The boys eat everything, you must save it for the girl.”
It’s probably worth rewinding to tell you how I got there in the first place. It began on a Wednesday in Moscow.
They installed six swings in front of the metro station Mayakovskaya. I was sitting on one, but it was too big to self-power. My boots dragged through the slush at a disappointing pace as I waited for the representative who would arrange my Chinese visa.
I was asked to bring all of the identification documents I possessed and wait under the monument to Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. A few rather funny lines from Frank O’Hara’s poem dedicated to Mayakovsky came to mind, appropriate in the malaise of Russian winter when everything felt a touch dull:
Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.
A figure in a black fur jumpsuit materialized beneath the monument. She was smoking and concealing a small dog under her arm. We didn’t even bother to exchange fake pleasantries; she inspected my paperwork and shoved my passport into her back pocket.
“When done, I will call.”
The city of Shanghai was never meant to be Kunlun’s permanent home, hence they played in a community ice skating rink where little girls practiced synchronized skating routines set to Ravel’s Bolero. Marketing campaigns, and therefore fans, were sparse; the team belonged to Beijing, and to Beijing it was fated to return. A few hundred spectators showed up on average and one guy brought a drum—he occasionally reminded the crowd to chant in English because the players would not understand them otherwise.
Hockey players warm up forty minutes before puck drop. When I arrived, music that sounded like a Nokia ringtone from 1998 played during their twenty minute routine. They had lost eleven of their last fourteen games and I was beginning to blame the atmosphere because I had run out of cliches.
I collected some song requests from the players and we delivered the audio files—cut and numbered, for maximum clarity—to the DJ. I asked if he understood to play these songs during the warmup and he responded, “Yes. Warm Up.”
At 6:50 PM, the players took to the ice. The DJ played the six tracks they requested….except…he played them all at the same time. The arena sounded like an arcade—a fun house from a clown nightmare—and I sort of wished that a cosmic Pac-Man would gobble me up beside the glass.
Kunlun lost three of four games during my stay there, pulling out one beautiful—and unexpected—win against Gagarin Cup contenders Avangard. The team blasted Carl Douglas’ 1974 hit Kung-Fu Fighting when they won at home, but it had been so long that it took a while for someone to find the track. Our GM had tears in his eyes outside the locker room doors, but something about the opening riff brought me back to a moment in time and I stopped paying attention.
I once attended a meditation class in New York where every locker had a quote inscribed in the door. Mine read:
“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?” Lao Tzu
My attachment to this team’s headlines had lessened with proximity; more often, I found myself wondering how I could help the muddy waters of their growing pains settle over time. My mission shifted, somewhat without my conscious permission, from storytelling to participating in its creation. As a journalist, we are often trained to be enemies of our subjects—and yet, I could not resist the innocent wish that one day China would fall in love with a game that had changed the course of my life, and that I could dampen its shock on arrival. Did Kunlun have the patience to wait?
The team moved back to its presumptive home in Beijing, mid-February.
For all my wide-eyed hopes, I almost did not make it there.
Kunlun’s Shougang Arena is located in the 2022 Olympic Organizing Committee's village in the outskirts of the city. Offices and training centers surround the leftover infrastructure of a 100-year-old steel plant. The refineries are lit red at night as driverless cars zoom down the deserted roadways. The whole compound was militarized minus one Starbucks, a real shock to my cab driver and me upon arrival from the airport.
For thirty or forty minutes, officers inspected my bags and vehemently refused entry to the complex. Unable to communicate and fresh off of a thirteen hour plane ride, I sobbed into the sleeves of a Kunlun parka that team captain Brandon Yip had leant to me.
Earlier in my cab ride, a woman let herself into the passenger seat at a traffic light. She screamed something about a hospital into my shocked face, and began to direct my driver. Unfortunately this was only one of two times that I thought my life would come to an unceremonious end before breakfast.
When both the driver and our unexpected guest had seen enough of my tears, the elderly woman emerged from the car and began to command the armed men with the ferocity of Arturo Toscanini conducting a 100-piece orchestra at La Scala. A hard “no” melted into a conversation, and then—at long last—a resigned “yes.” Despite claims that she was en route to the hospital, she hurled my suitcase onto the sidewalk and smacked me gently across the head, as if to say—“get it together, honey. This is China.”
The Wayne Gretzky School of Hockey is located in northeastern Beijing.
Until last summer, it was an insignificant destination with an inscrutable name—the kind of generic ice skating rink you’d find in suburban New Jersey with hot chocolate machines and stale popcorn. If they produced a star, it would be as much a credit to them as finding the winning lottery ticket on a park bench.
The arena was so cold that it was unbearable—even for two Canadians and a Russian who played hockey all their lives. A number 99 Kunlun jersey with Wayne Gretzky’s signature was framed on the wall. If you asked yourself at that moment “what’s in a name?”—you might find that the answer, in Chinese or English, was “everything.” Gretzky’s name was everywhere, even in a country where hardly anyone had an emotional association with his accomplishments. But regardless, those seven letters turned this unassuming sheet of ice into the prince of the Chinese Olympic hockey system.
I could not help but wonder how I wound up with the former head coach of the Atlanta Thrashers, a Stanley Cup-winning New York Ranger and a Latvian KHL executive in the outskirts of Beijing in February. A few of us sat in a glass perch above the ice with sheets of paper labeled “red team” and “white team.” Kunlun’s coaching staff was evaluating Chinese youth hockey players to enter the club system—an opportunity that could fast-track you to the Olympic Games, if you were so inclined. We jockeyed for position in front of one small heater.
Alexei Kovalev was shouting skating drills in a manner remarkably close to what I’d seen him do with the KHL team. A young player’s father was wearing a leather bomber with the New York Rangers logo, but he had yet to gush over who was coaching his son. I wondered if he knew. Two boys were in a fist fight in the corner, ending when one kneed the other in the face. Wayward pucks were ricocheting off of helmets and plexiglass. There is something wonderfully humorous, if not a touch morose, about children’s hockey.
A few of the kids—in particular, two girls—were talented. They played with a swagger that seemed only to develop innately, and not over time. There are so many disciplined athletes in the world of professional sports, and yet there’s a desert of confidence. Perhaps that is why we tolerate a prima donna every now and again.
At one point, I found myself counting the number of sit-ups that pairs of young hockey players could complete in thirty seconds. A member of our staff argued that strength evaluations were unethical among children this young, but several Chinese counterparts insisted upon it. “They paid for this,” one woman said. “The parents paid to have their children tested.”
The young players we evaluated seemed so carefree as they skated after pucks (or took them to the head), but I wondered if they knew the lifestyle that they stood on the precipice of right now. How many people can stomach the uncertainty—the spectacular rise and fall of fortune as knees give out and youth prevails? As an athlete, you are elevated to a status more important than the rest of humanity. As an ex-athlete, you suffer the fate of Icarus with the ache of the supernova you once were.
What had Kunlun’s organizers signed up for, when they decided to bring hockey to China? After the photo ops and head nods to the broader symbolism of diplomacy, I can tell you what they encountered. Soft ice in Shenzhen, sparse crowds in Shanghai, traffic and a bureaucratic inferno in Beijing. But much like children who would hardly trade the dream of a brilliant flash of an NHL career for a more certain, slow-burn…I do not suspect that those who are along for the ride of bringing hockey to China will wish for another fate. Will Kunlun and its hockey schools remain in the wake of the 2022 Olympics? We cannot know for sure.
But the last thing I, or you, or Gretzky or China could ever hope for in professional sport is predictability. In a hockey game, we live for sixty minutes in technicolor—the awkwardness, raw passion and potential for heartbreak magnified. The same could be said for this audacious project I have unwittingly found myself in the corridors of: the rise of Kunlun Red Star—a risk with no promise of reward, a vulnerable search for home with no guarantee of open arms.
In the words of Odysseus, an epic explorer who knew a version of this plot all too well:
“So let this adventure follow.”