A HOCKEY SEASON IN CHINA
by Ryan Stone, Chinese Women's National Team Head Coach
Hello from Harbin, China! I have been working this season based in Harbin as the Head Coach of the National Women's Hockey program. After their heartbreaking loss to the Swiss last season in the Olympic qualifier, and the subsequent retirement of their eight top players, this was to be a true rebuilding season for the Chinese women's hockey team.
My journey began after a phone call from Mike Milbury in late-September asking me if I wanted the job. Amazingly, a mere two and a half weeks after that call I found myself on a plane headed to Harbin, China, a place I had never heard of until this year. So, I left my post as an assistant coach for Brown University Women's Hockey and headed to China.
I was greeted warmly at a banquet in my honor less than an hour after landing and have been treated like royalty by everyone ever since.
The team is a group of about 30 girls with ages ranging from 16-26 years old. The average age on the team is only 19, however. They are a dedicated, hard-working and driven bunch of young women with one dream: to return to the Olympics in 2010 in Vancouver.
I began quickly with an international tournament less than a week after I arrived, which was hosted in Harbin. We faced Japan twice, Russia twice and Germany once in that tournament and came out with a 1-3-1 record. Although I was not pleased with that result, everyone else seemed very optimistic about the future.
Thanks again to the Islanders, I was able to bring an assistant coach over with me after that tournament. Tim McNamara arrived a week later, just days before our departure for Finland.
We took the team to the Vierumaki Institute in Finland for one month of training in November. We competed in the Finnish National Women's League (and one game against the Finnish U-20 Team) during that time. It was an excellent experience for the team and although we finished with a 4-9 record, I was becoming optimistic about the future as players made great individual and team improvements over the month.
The Finland trip highlights included two dramatic come-from-behind victories in our first two games. We won both games in overtime after scoring with the extra attacker in the final seconds. In our first game, we came back from down 5-1 halfway through the third period, to win 6-5 in overtime, showing the amazing resilience of our players.
In China, there are very few women hockey players. Thus, they lack good competition in their own country. The trip to Finland was a huge success and great to get some good women's hockey competition. The trip ended with our two top players, Jin Feng Ling and Sun Rui, being offered contracts to remain in Finland and play for the top team in the league for the rest of the season.
We returned to China, and Tim and I were treated to a few days in Beijing, courtesy of China Hockey. We toured the Great Wall at Badaling and the Forbidden City. Both were amazing sites and the shear magnitude of each is impossible to describe.
The next two months were strictly training, as we had no tournaments scheduled, with a small break at Christmas for Tim and I to return to the U.S. to visit family and finalize our Chinese Work Visas.
In February we played in two consecutive men's hockey tournaments. The first was in the northern City of Jia Mu Si against semi-pro men's teams and the second was in Harbin against boys Midget/High School aged teams. We went 1-9 over those tournaments with some impressive efforts and close losses, plus the win we achieved, against very strong teams.
During the last tournament, my parents visited Harbin and Tim and I got the chance to do some tourist activities with them around Harbin. Harbin is an impressively-sized city, very difficult to describe. It spreads out over a large area similar to the city of Chicago and packs 3.2 million people in the city proper, 9.4 million when including the surrounding area. We viewed the city from the top of the Dragon Tower at 130 meters up and it was an impressive site.
We also finally made it to the world-famous Harbin Festival of Ice and Snow. This is another amazing feat of Chinese engineering. The size of a small city, the festival includes sculptures of famous buildings from around the world, some reach 8 to 10 stories in height. It is nearly impossible to describe the size of the area of sculptures made entirely of ice and snow and lit up from the inside, making it spectacular at night when we went.
It has been an amazing cultural experience to live and work in this amazing land. The way of life here could not be more different from the United States. However, when you boil it down, we have a group of 30 very dedicated young women improving their hockey skills daily. In many ways it is no different than my recent work at Brown University, except that the girls are singularly focused on hockey. Along the way, Tim and I have been learning Chinese from the players while teaching them some English at the same time.
It has definitely been an eye-opening experience for me. I want to deeply thank Mike Milbury, Charles Wang and the New York Islanders for the opportunity to take on this challenge. The interaction with the Chinese players and staff has left us both with an increased awareness of each other's culture, along with an improvement of hockey skills, tactics, training methods and a brighter future for China Women's Hockey.
Finally, the team and coaching staff are preparing and looking forward to our final tournament of the season, the Asian Invitational Tournament. The tournament will be held in Beijing on March 24th-28th. We will face North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Kazakhstan in a round-robin format. Although we have a very young team, we are looking to maintain our place as a top team in that group.
I will update you again at the conclusion of the season.
Greeting from Harbin!
Head Coach, Chinese National Women's Hockey Team