Forgive me readers, but I had never seen a hockey game before Thursday night, at the Beijing Olympics. The closest I ever came was watching The Mighty Ducks as a kid.
Before you denounce me as un-Canadian, I should point out that I am not, in fact, Canadian. I’m originally from Wales, and have lived since 2014 in Hong Kong, where I was hired last year to be The Globe and Mail’s Asia correspondent.
A resident of the tropics from a country without a strong ice hockey tradition might sound like a lousy reporter to send to cover an Olympic hockey match, and you’d be right. My editors decided to do so anyway because (a) they thought it would be funny, at least to them if not anyone else, and (b) because most Chinese people watching these Games also don’t know anything about hockey.
If one were to be very cruel, that could also be said to apply to the country’s hockey team: it’s ranked 32nd in the world and only qualified for these Games because China is the host.
Playing such a team against the best in the world seemed like such a recipe for humiliation, repeated and in public, that some commentators expected China to pull out. Things were alleviated somewhat when the NHL said it would not be sending players to Beijing, but the skill gap between China and the rest of its group – Canada, the United States and Germany – is still staggering.
“It’s scary, it really is,” former Canada head coach Dave King told Reuters last year when the matchups were announced. “They are in way over their head for sure.”
China has added to what domestic talent it could find with a number of imported players, including Canada’s Paris O’Brien and Ryan Sproul – playing under the Chinese names Yongli Ouban and Sipulaoer Ruian, respectively – and American Jake Chelios (Kailiaosi Jieke), son of four-time U.S. Olympian Chris Chelios.
Outside of the Olympics, all play for Kunlun Red Star, of the Kontinental Hockey League, Eurasia’s answer to the NHL.
If Beijing-based Kunlun was designed to be a builder team for the Chinese national squad, it’s not a particularly successful one. In the most recent KHL season, Kunlun was the worst-ranked team across both the West and East conferences.
Earlier this week, the (higher ranked) Chinese women’s hockey team was knocked out of the Games after placing fourth in their group in the preliminary round, notching just one victory, over Denmark.
With the hopes for the men’s team so low, there was a surprisingly decent turnout at the National Indoor Stadium, with hundreds of spectators not exactly packing, but at least filling, the non-bubble stands. They cheered and applauded loudly as the Chinese team came onto the ice, waving Olympic and national flags that had been provided.
During the first period, China was decently competitive, at least to this novice’s eye, and even came close to scoring the first goal, much to the delight of the crowd, who chanted “Come on China!” with gusto.
Some of the most enthusiastic cheering was from other members of China’s Olympic team, about two dozen of whom, athletes and staff, had turned out to watch their compatriots.
China managed to stave off a U.S. score until just over halfway into the first period, when Brendan Brisson sunk it home with an assist from Matt Knies, and will have felt reasonably good about closing out the first 20 minutes just down 1-0, especially given, that across town, Canada put three goals in against Germany in the same time.
Things started to unravel around the halfway point, though, after the second and third American goals. This was also when Team China began to lose its discipline, becoming visibly frustrated: No sooner was Fu Shuai sent off for high sticking, that goalkeeper Jeremy Smith (Shimisi Jieruimi) landed a teammate in the bin on his behalf for interference, leaving the U.S. two players up for a brief time and forcing the Chinese to park their remaining players in front of the goal.
The U.S. had 16 shots on goal in the second period to China’s six, and closed it out four goals up.
By the time the third period was properly under way, the game was well and truly in rout territory, as the U.S. went up 5-0 within two minutes, and the atmosphere among the home crowd was well and truly dead.
What little tension remained was over whether China could possibly get a consolation goal. The Chinese players tried, but couldn’t break through, as their opponents continued to rack up the score, ending on 8-0 with barely a celebration.
While toward the end a small section of the home crowd (about a dozen people) started a defiant chant of “Come on China!” again, most spectators were checked out, and some could be seen leaving early. Those that remained applauded the teams politely at the final bell, and then headed for the exits.
China’s leaders have spoken of wanting to get 300 million people involved in winter sports around these Olympics. It’s unclear if Thursday’s match will have made any hockey converts, either in the stadium or watching at home. State media paid little attention to the game, presumably fully aware of what the likely result would be.
As for myself, while there were definitely (several) points at which I didn’t understand what was happening, and multiple fouls to my eye that are, I surmise, just part of hockey, the game was far more dynamic and enjoyable in person than the boring confusion whenever I have tried to watch on TV.
Like other North American sports, there are far too many stoppages – it should not take the better part of an hour to play a period that is nominally 20 minutes long. But how can you not enjoy a game that can be sublimely graceful one minute and then sloppy and brilliantly messy the other?
If nothing else, it was definitely better than curling.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.