Amateur and foreign players will be allowed to compete in China's National Ice Hockey Tournament for the first time in its history when the puck drops on Monday in Beijing. The tournament features 28 teams from around China and will run until May 19.
Foreigners, amateurs finally get their shot
The tournament features three groups including a women's group. Over a dozen foreign players will be playing for teams in Group B during the contest. According to relevant rules, each team can only have three foreign players at most and no more than one can play on the ice at the same time. Furthermore, only foreigners who work or live in their team's home city can register to play.
Many of the foreign players registered are hockey coaches. Currently, less than 200 Chinese coaches are qualified to coach ice hockey teams in the country. Most of them are retired players from professional teams in China's northeastern region. China's fast-growing population of ice hockey players has attracted coaches from all over the world, including the US, Sweden, Finland and Russia – countries with a strong history in the sport.
Ice hockey is growing rapidly in China
Since Beijing won the bid in 2015 to host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, ice hockey population has exploded. At the end of 2015, there were around 2,000 registered professional and teenage ice hockey players. However, that number exceeded 12,000 by the end of 2017, with way more unregistered enthusiasts. Meanwhile, the number of hockey rinks available in China has increased from about 50 to over 200.
A total of 840 players, coaches, team staff and government representatives will represent the 28 teams, a record in the tournament's history. Interestingly, many are from central and southern China, areas where it rarely snows during the winter. As a matter of fact, 20 of the 28 teams are not from northeast China, where ice hockey used to be seen as a local specialty.