BEIJING — Song Andong made sports history last week as the first Chinese player selected in the NHL draft. To his old coach, though, he’s just a nice kid who keeps his head and shows the proper respect.
"(Song) was very clever, learnt things very fast," Fu Lei, who coached Song from 2003 to 2007, said in an interview Monday. "Meanwhile, he was very nice and polite to his coaches and teammates."
Fu said he had no doubt Song would go far, even though the 18-year-old who goes by the name "Misha" started out playing on a smaller-than-normal rink in Beijing when his mother was trying to find him a sport.
Once his talent was spotted, his family moved to Canada and he quickly excelled when he began playing as a 10-year-old.
Song was a member of the varsity team at Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, and plans to attend Philips Andover Academy in Massachusetts next year as a postgraduate student before playing college hockey.
After leaving China, Song moved from forward to defenceman, although Fu said he was a good organizer who could lead the attack from any position.
"That was great because he stays really calm during the match, so thereby can fully take the advantage," Fu said.
Although relatively new to China, ice hockey has been growing quickly, especially among the country’s expanding middle and upper classes. Year round, youngsters in Beijing emerge from smart new SUVs lugging their gear at one of the 20 rinks in the city as part of a youth program that boasts around 1,500 players on almost 100 teams.
The sport’s promoters are hoping for another big boost if Beijing wins its bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. The men’s and women’s venues are already constructed and need just slight alternations to host international games.
Nationwide, China has about 80 full-size rinks and another 120 smaller ones, with more being added each month. In terms of viewership, the Canada-Sweden Olympic gold medal game at last year’s Sochi Winter Games attracted 120 million viewers in China.
With that growth, the NHL is starting to take notice. Last season, state broadcaster CCTV showed four live NHL games per week and the Toronto Maple Leaves sent staff to Shanghai and Beijing to hold hockey camps and produce a series of specials to run with the league’s games in China.
Fu said he hopes China’s explosive growth will result in a professional league in the not too near distant future. If it does, it’ll be built on the success of players such as Song and the youngsters who look up to them
Six-year-old Wang Haicheng, a forward with the Beijing Hunters, said watching the live broadcast of Song being drafted Saturday as the New York Islanders’ No. 172 pick had fired up his passion for the game.
"I feel glad for him. And I hope I can play as good as Song Andong one day," Wang said.
Players’ parents said Song’s embrace by the NHL would be a huge boost for hockey in China, although they said the government provided far less support than for other sports. Like hockey parents everywhere, they decried the expense of equipment and training, but said seeing their children happy and engaged in a healthy pastime was well worth it.
"I think Song Andong is going to be a huge inspiration for hockey in China," said Hu Bin, watching his son Hu Aosen run through drills. "The more attention we have, the better the sport will grow in China."
At the draft, Song himself commented on the progress Chinese hockey has made.
"When I started playing there weren’t a lot of people playing there and not much support for the game," said Song, whose brother still plays in Beijing. "But last year when I went back, it’d been like eight years since I’ve seen Chinese hockey, it’s just been tremendous how far they’ve grown."