When Rake Tao stepped onto the ice for his first game of hockey in Hangzhou, China, he was confident. And why wouldn’t he be?
As the owner and operator of IBX Hockey, he had created the first Chinese hockey brand, which was used by China’s junior teams, and his top-notch hockey gear was sold across Asia.
He knew the equipment inside and out, and employed many people to manufacture countless hockey gloves, padding and other gear. But he’d never been on the ice.
“The funny thing is, before I played hockey, I noticed everyone is moving very fast on ice. And you know, I think, ‘I can do that,'” Tao told CBC News with a laugh.
“I tried to play hockey, but everybody hates me. I’m a terrible skater! So then they asked me to be in net.”
Tao jokes he discovered a “gift” for standing still in the net, hoping the puck (or ball, as they call it in China) would bounce off some of his gear — gear made in his own factory.
Moored in his net, he fell in love with the ice-level view of the speed and skill of the game.
“My life has been totally changed because of hockey,” he said. “Along the way, there were many friends from Canada I met, which helped and influenced me to make hockey possible here in my area in China.”
In 2017, CBC News told the story about three Canadian English teachers who introduced hockey night to Hangzhou: Kyle MacNeil of Sydney, N.S., Will Lefebvre of Middleton, N.S., and Frank Ienzi of Ottawa. The trio had struggled to find ice time in Hangzhou’s rink, which was inside a shopping mall and mostly used for skating. They had to wait until the mall closed to play late at night.
The Canadians met Tao, who manufactured hockey gear for Canadian company Eagle Hockey and later Vaughan Custom Sports, before starting his own business. He helped them get better access to the rink, and they taught him about the game.
“We’re trying to make hockey happen. And it is happening with everybody’s help, especially the guys from Canada,” Tao said.
Ienzi and Lefebvre have both left China. MacNeil still lives there, and has married and plans to return to Nova Scotia with his wife in 2023.
“In the early years of the league, I maintained the website and made the promotional material to get more locals and expats interested,” MacNeil said.
“Rake handles all of that now. I also no longer play — my knees aren’t what they used to be — and I’ve donated all my gear to the league. I’ve since taken on the role of league DJ, and do what I can to pump up the crowd. Still to this day, China is largely unaware of Western music, and I enjoy bringing some of that to our games.”
Hockey hockey hockey
Tao said “hockey” is like a magic word for Chinese people who want to get to know Canadians.
“Anywhere I go, when I talk to people from Canada, if you talk ice hockey, right away you will bring down the distance with them and they will tell all the different stories about how they grew up playing ice hockey,” he said, recalling the time he learned that many Canadians actually build a hockey rink in their own backyards.
Tao said Hangzhou now has 68 players in an elite and a rookie league, plus a 10-deep sub bench. He started a second league in Ningbo, a city on China’s eastern coast, and that has three teams that mix rookies and elites (and adults with kids) for fun tournaments that gently introduce newcomers to hockey.
“Seeing hockey grow in Hangzhou has been amazing,” MacNeil said. “We started as a handful of guys with only sticks, skates, gloves, and helmets. Now, the league has grown to include two divisions and six teams. There are so many people in the league, both new and old, who had never played hockey — some had never even seen a game. And just like it does back home, hockey has become a big part of their life.”
MacNeil said the CIIHL Westlakers hockey league gave him lifelong friends from around the world and changed his life.
The league has people from France, Finland, South Korea and Japan, along with Chinese players, said Tao. And locals are finding their own way to play the game.
Hockey with Chinese characteristics
“We’re trying to remove the fighting part from hockey. Everybody just plays for fun. Nobody wants to get bruises the next day and [have to] show up at work,” he said.
“When it comes to your style of playing, it’s more about the body, because you grow up with a strong body. You’re big guys with power. But when it comes to Chinese people, we don’t do that. We try to make equipment to fit Chinese people’s style: going fast, and quick reactions. It’s more like a technical style instead of using your body.”
The NHL now streams in China and the 2022 Olympic Games will be held February in Beijing. Tao said many Chinese people are especially drawn to hockey, as it’s the only team-versus-team sport in the Winter Games.
“It’s very enjoyable to watch, so people wanted to give it a try. Fifteen years ago, when I talk about ice hockey, nobody knows what it is. But right now, if I say ice hockey, the first thing they ask is, ‘Where can I try?’ That’s a big step,” Tao said.
“The most important thing is to meet people. They want to play hockey and they want to practise English, as well.”
Tao’s passion for hockey now rivals that of the three Canadians who brought him the game. He said travelling to play sports was a custom unknown to him, but he now travels two hours every weekend to play goalie in Ningbo to help develop the league he started in that city. He teaches hockey to new players in the Hangzhou and Ningbo leagues.
“They have been motivated by the enthusiasm for hockey from the Canadians like Frank, Kyle, Will, in the past years,” he said. “I hope in the future, between China and Canada, there will be more hockey activities between the two countries. I hope hockey would change people’s life the way it does to me.”
Building bonds with Russians, too
He’s also using his passion for hockey to connect with Russian people and dreams of the day he sells IBX hockey gear in the heartland of hockey: Canada. It would be a Chinese first.
“We’re trying to make hockey happen. And it is happening with everybody’s help, especially the guys from Canada,” he said. “You guys are born to play hockey, just like Chinese people are born to play Ping-Pong.”
Tao knows China’s national hockey team faces stiff challenges in an Olympic group with Canada and the U.S.
“If the boys just play their hearts out, I think it’s OK. They are actually facing some pretty solid teams. But the most important thing is just enjoy the game.”
Tao has created a business and a passion for himself through hockey, and he thinks other Chinese people will see the same opportunity. It’s very hard to become one of the best table tennis players in China, he said, but the road to hockey glory is wide open. Just head to the Hangzhou mall and lace up.
And Tao has a challenge for any Canadians who want to humble themselves in sports.
“I know some of the Canadian people in China said they’re very good at Ping-Pong. But when it comes to the table, it’s a totally different story,” he laughed.
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