Leah Lum has grown used to being the only Asian hockey player on the ice most of the time. So what she experienced on Tuesday in Toronto blew her away.
The 21-year-old from Richmond, B.C., is a star player at the University of Connecticut, and she was invited to the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence to take part in a two-day identification camp for Team China. The rink's lobby was full of boys, girls, men and women of Chinese descent, hailing from all over North America, toting hockey bags and being handed red-and-gold practice jerseys.
China wants to become a world hockey power. It is investing serious time and resources in the venture, especially with the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics on the horizon. China is working hard to develop its homegrown players by seeking to persuade more of its 1.4 billion citizens to play hockey. But the country is also casting a net beyond its borders, too, scouring the planet for athletes who may be eligible to join Team China.
The MasterCard Centre parking lot was spotted with licence plates from Quebec, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Lum flew in with her friend Emily Costales, 21, from Vancouver. Costales played three seasons at Syracuse University and will play next season at the University of British Columbia.
Lum said she's a fourth-generation Canadian, while Costales said she's second generation. Neither has explored citizenship requirements. But the opportunity to skate with other Chinese North Americans for a chance to get noticed by Team China was too good to pass up.
"It was my dream to go to the Olympics with Team Canada, but that didn't happen for me – the hockey talent is just so deep," Lum said. "I talked to my coaches at UConn and they said 'Lummer, what a great opportunity, you've got to go check it out.'"
Some 60 female players came to the first day of evaluation skates, grouped throughout the day by age, with some as young as 8. Male players were being evaluated much of the day on another ice pad.
It is no coincidence that the camp started one day after the Canadian Women's Hockey League's announcement in Toronto that it is adding an expansion team in China called the Kunlun Red Star, which will be a mix of Chinese, European and North American players and will begin play this coming season. The head coach of that team – Digit Murphy, a long-time women's coach at Brown University and also with the CWHL's Boston Blades – was in town for the announcement and is also taking the lead on scouting talent for China's national women's junior and senior teams.
The hockey world has for decades been desperately seeking ways to develop more global powers in the women's game, which has been dominated by Canada and the U.S. Currently, the International Ice Hockey Federation ranks China's women's team 18th in the world. (The men are ranked 37th.)
"Right now, we're looking for as many players as possible who could potentially play for China at the IIHF level. This is just an exposure camp, and we want to rate them, evaluate them, and forge relationships with them," said the U.S.-born Murphy, who noted that this group was assembled in just two weeks with e-mail invitations, and that there are many more Chinese-North American players to contact.
"China's hockey pool is small and we want to open up the pool and help grow the game globally. We want to grow a system in China that will help them grow results faster. We want to teach, educate, grow and model, and if we do it right, the winning will come. We are trying to empower a nation."
Murphy talked playfully after the morning skate with two girls from Toronto's Scarborough Ice Raiders, who took the day off school to be there. The two Canadian-born kids, Jessica Bao, 8, and Rachel Chi, 9, giggled nervously as they tried to say "Wo ai zhongguo!" in unison with Murphy, a phrase that translates to "I love China."
"Maybe she will play for China some day – anything is possible – but right now we just know she loves hockey," said Jessica's father, Yi Bao. "I was born in China, near Shanghai, and I moved here 15 years ago. Now our family really likes hockey. I thought this camp would be a nice opportunity for her."
Kunlun Red Star is a hockey management group founded a year ago and is working in partnership with the Chinese Ice Hockey Association and the Chinese government to bolster the sport in China. It debuted a men's pro team by the same name in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League last season.
That team will be led this winter by former NHL coach Mike Keenan, who was also on hand Tuesday, scouting male talent in Toronto.
When Tuesday's final session was over, the women gathered at centre ice with Murphy, took off their helmets and wrapped their arms around one another to pose for a sort of team photo – even though most players were meeting each other for the first time.
"What a cool experience to step out here today and see the ice full of Asian girls," Lum said. "It just shows how quickly the game is growing."