Cups on the walls seems like an apt metaphor for hockey in Shanghai. They look like a nondescript decoration, but something was lost in the translation and the end result is jocks on the walls. I want to make a few things clear before I talk about what isn't quite right about hockey here. First of all, the local instructors are great. They really care about the kids, they are knowledgeable and they work as hard as anyone I have seen in Toronto.
The conditions they labour under are not exactly ideal, however. Unlike back home, hockey is not top of the food chain in Shanghai. A typical day here for me went like this: 8:30-10 am we ran a regular skills practice, with me working with 3-4 goalies while about 25 players skated and worked on their skills in the 2/3 of the ice that I wasn't using. After the practice, there would generally be a flood followed by a one hour semi-private session with the same goalies that were on in the first practice. This sounds fantastic, but herein lay the problem. After the flood the arena staff brought out a small plastic wall that went across the blue line, sometimes it went across the top of the circles. On the smaller end of the wall, I worked with the goalies, while on the other 2/3 of the ice, simultaneously there was pleasure skating and figure skating practice, with no real system of organization. The chaos was fun to watch, when you weren't trying to navigate your way through a maze of spinning skates and toe-picks floating around chest and head level. Oh, and on the same 1/3 of the ice I was working with the goalies, there were usually 3 or 4 other instructors also running private sessions with players. This severely restricted options for drills and made it almost impossible to shoot on the goalies, other than in tight to the crease. So, I usually restricted these sessions to skating drills within the crease.
That spatial restriction is what I believe to be the biggest problem with hockey here. Almost to a man, the kids are all fantastic skaters. They are fast, hardworking and they use their edges well. The goalies are the same, when I first came on the ice and saw them moving around I was really impressed. A few of the kids move as well as anyone I have seen in the same age group. Skating is the most important part of the game and they've definitely built a strong foundation here. Then, you get to puck skills. Most of the kids here have trouble stick-handling and shooting. A combination of very slow ice conditions due to the heat and humidity of the arena and lack of time with pucks in practices brings the level down for everyone. The goalies don't face strong shots very often and therefore struggle in game situations. However, they all work very hard and by the end of the week all of the goalies showed huge improvement in their games.
I really believe that with improved infrastructure, hockey will thrive in Shanghai. The kids all love the game and work hard, and have parents that support them and have the means to provide the best resources for them to improve their hockey. All of the kids I talked to had been to or were planning on attending hockey camps in Canada and the US this summer. One was headed to BC for a camp, during his Alaska to Vancouver to Africa summer vacation (when this was told to me, the camp in BC was the highlight and the trip to Africa to watch the animal migration was mentioned in passing as an afterthought.)
Everyone I have met on the hockey side has been incredibly kind and devoted. The reverence for Canada surrounding hockey was amazing to see. I felt like some guru coming to preach the secret to light and love. At the end of the day, it's just hockey or qu gun qiu, which roughly translates to curved stick ball, and it's as trivial a problem as you could have in a country as big and in such transition as China, but the limitations are only in infrastructure. If that becomes a priority, in a decade or two I have no doubt that there will be many Chinese players in the NHL.