ZURICH – With Chinese U18 national team defenceman Andong Song drafted by the New York Islanders, the country hit the media in hockey countries while hockey hit the media in China where hockey is most popular in the northern province of Heilongjiang. But hockey in Asia dates back to almost a century of action on ice. Let’s have a look at some milestones.
1920: Founding of the Japanese Ice Skating Federation, the forerunner of the Japanese Ice Hockey Federation, which became Asia's first IIHF member in 1930. Japan is the oldest and biggest IIHF member in Asia and with 19,260 registered ice hockey players it governs more players and teams than there are in several top-division nations in Europe.
1930: The Japanese national team played in its first World Championship. It was a short moment for the Asians since the tournament began and ended for them with a 5-0 quarter-final loss to Poland in Chamonix, France. In 1936 the Japanese played in the Olympic Winter Games in Berlin, Germany, but lost its preliminary-round games to Sweden (2-0) and eventual gold medallist Great Britain (3-0).
1948: Larry Kwong became the first NHL player of Asian descent to play an NHL game. The Canadian born to parents who immigrated from China to British Columbia was called up by the injury-plagued New York Rangers for an NHL game but only played a shift in a game against the Montreal Canadiens and spent the rest of his career in minor leagues and one year in Great Britain. Later North American NHL players of Asian descent include Paul and Steve Kariya, Devin Setoguchi, Brandon Yip as well as two Seoul-born players, Jim Paek and Richard Park.
1960: In 1957 Japan returned in international play at the World Championship but the first win at a top-level event followed at the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, USA. The Japanese came by ship and lost to Canada and Sweden in the group stage but had two wins against Australia as well as a tie and a loss against Finland in the consolation round. At the top level Japan competed in eight Olympic men’s ice hockey tournaments, two Olympic women’s ice hockey tournaments, nine World Championships with the men’s national team, one World Junior Championship, five Women’s World Championships and three U18 Women’s World Championships.
1972: The first Olympic Winter Games in Asia were hosted in Sapporo, Japan. It was the first time the Winter Games were held outside of Europe and North America. Originally Sapporo was awarded to host the 1940 Olympics, which were cancelled due to World War II. Japan won its first gold medal in winter sports and the Japanese ice hockey team had the chance to play in the northern island of Hokkaido where the sport is most popular. After an 8-2 loss to Czechoslovakia, Japan played in the consolation round it ended with a 2-1-1 record including wins over Yugoslavia and West Germany.
1972: China became the second Asian nation to enter a national team in IIHF competitions when the Chinese participated in the 1972 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship C-Pool in Miercurea Ciuc, Romania. The Chinese had a considerably good start with wins over Bulgaria and Denmark, ties against Austria and Hungary, and losses to the Netherlands and Italy. Yungming Cheng led the team in scoring with four goals. In 1974 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea joined the C-Pool and in 1979 the Republic of Korea entered a team in the competition for the first time.
1978: Shoichi Tomita, who was Japan’s goalie at the 1960 Olympic Winter Games and at the 1962 IIHF World Championship B-Pool, was elected into the IIHF Council. He was a member of the IIHF’s executive body for 34 years and during his era Asia got a fix place in the Council. As of 1994 Tomita served as an IIHF Vice President. For his farewell the 2012 IIHF General Congress took place in his hometown of Tokyo where Thomas Wu from Hong Kong was elected as his successor.
1986: The first Asian Winter Games were organized in Sapporo, Japan, and included ice hockey. China won the first edition that included four teams thanks to a 4-1 win over Japan. In 1996 a women’s ice hockey tournament was added and in 2011 the Asian Winter Games included 12 men’s and five women’s national teams with Kazakhstan as the winner in both categories.
1990: Jim Paek became the first player of Asian descent born in Asia to play in the NHL when the defenceman had his debut in 1990 early in the season with the Pittsburgh Penguins in a game against the New York Islanders. Born in Seoul, Paek grew up in Canada and played for Pittsburgh winning two Stanley Cups, for Los Angeles and Ottawa until 1995. He played eight more years in minor leagues and for the Nottingham Panthers in Great Britain.
1992: China competed in a top-level IIHF event for the first time – not in men’s ice hockey but in the 1992 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship. At the event in Tampere China earned a fifth-place finish with wins over Denmark, Norway and Switzerland. The Chinese stayed among the elite nations until 2010 and played in all top-division Women’s World Championships by then and qualified for the Olympic Games three times before a period of decline started after 2010.
1992: Hiroyuki Miura became the first player developed in Asia to be drafted. The Montreal Canadiens picked the Japanese defenceman 260th overall. He spent one season in North America in the ECHL before returning to Japan. Prior to him the Buffalo Sabres made some fun in the late rounds in 1974 and “drafted” an imaginary Japanese player they called Taro Tsujimoto but neither he nor his club Tokyo Katanas existed as it became known several weeks later.
1993: After winning the B-Pool the year before – in a seldom four-team tie with Poland, Norway and France –, the Japanese U20 national team played the first and so far only time in the top division of the IIHF World Junior Championship in 1993. The Asians travelled to Sweden with slim chances as its top players from the team that earned promotion were born in 1972 and missing, and the class of 1973 wasn’t the strongest with only six players nominated. The team lost all seven games, mostly by clear margins except for a 6-3 defeat to Germany.
1997: The Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Vancouver Canucks opened their NHL season with two games at the Yoyogi Arena in Tokyo. Both games drew sell-out crowds of 10,500 and each team won one game by the score of 3-2. It was the first time in history that regular-season games of the NHL were played outside of North America. In 1998 the Calgary Flames and the San Jose Sharks also opened the season with two games in Tokyo, and in 2000 the Nashville Predators and the Pittsburgh Penguins played two regular-season games in Saitama where they set an attendance record for ice hockey in Japan with 13,849 spectators.
1998: The Olympic Winter Games were held in Asia for the second time and Nagano 1998 offered two firsts in ice hockey: It was the first time the NHL paused to make the Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament a best-on-best competition and it was the first Olympics with women’s ice hockey as a sport. Japan finished in 13th place in the 14-team men’s competition that was sensationally won by the Czech Republic and the Japanese women’s team finished in sixth and last place while China was fourth before Sweden in the first-ever Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament that was won by the United States.
1998: The IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship was extended to 16 teams and in an attempt to boost ice hockey in Asia, the continent got a fixed spot for a Far East qualifier. In its seven World Championships between 1998 and 2004 the Japanese most of the time had little trouble qualifying against China and Korea, but it didn’t win any of the 36 games in the Worlds. In 2001 it reached a 3-3 tie against Norway after blowing a 3-1 lead, two years later it tied Slovenia at three, again after a 3-1 lead. Because the automatic spot didn’t really help the development of Japanese hockey, it was decided to stop protecting Japan in the 2004 IIHF World Championship. Interestingly the Japanese had their strongest tournament exactly in 2004 with two ties (vs. France and Ukraine) and only 24 conceded goals in six games. Almost Japan seemed to manage to escape relegation when Takayuki Kobori scored the 2-1 and 3-2 lead against Denmark. With the game tied at 3-3 for the third period, however, Nobuhiro Sugawara scored hockey’s most bizarre own goal. After a pass to the crease from Denmark’s Bo Nordby-Andersen, Sugawara wanted to clear the puck but instead of hitting the end boards, he shot the puck into the own, empty net. A few days later Japan was relegated with a 15th-place finish.
2002: Korea for the first time played in the second-tier Division I of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program. It would take some more years and a fourth attempt to win its first game at this level, a 5-2 win over Croatia in 2010, but it was the start of Korea’s emerging as the number-two Asian ice hockey nation overtaking China. In its strongest season, Korea was ranked 21st overall in the program in 2013.
2003: The Asia League Ice Hockey was founded. Four professional teams from the former JIHL in Japan were joined by Anyang Halla from Korea. One year later teams from China and Russia’s Far East extended the league to eight teams. Last season it included nine teams from these four countries. The league brought competition in the Far East to a new level and helped improve the level of play in club hockey especially outside of Japan. The league winners came from Japan except in 2010 when it was won by Korea’s Anyang Halla. One year later Anyang Halla and the Tohoku Free Blades were declared co-champions due to the disastrous earthquake in Japan that hit the teams during their preparation for the final series.
2007: Japanese goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji became the first Asian-trained player to appear in an NHL game when the Los Angeles Kings called him up from the farm team and let him play for the last period in a game against the St. Louis Blues on 13th January. Three days later he played a full game against the Atlanta Thrashers. In total he appeared in four games for 96 minutes. After two more years in minor leagues he continued his career in Europe and in Japan.
2008: The IIHF launched the IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia that would eventually become an annual series of tournaments. In the men’s senior category it is aimed at smaller Asian nations that don’t participate in the upper levels of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program. Among the winners were Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates but the competition also included other nations from Oman to India, from Thailand to Malaysia.
2009: Years after goalie Fukufuji, several Japanese skaters had the chance to show their skill in NHL pre-season or rookie camps. Speedy forward Shuhei Kuji practised with the New York Islanders in 2009, and last year the Columbus Blue Jackets invited Ryo Hashimoto and the Islanders were joined by Japanese junior forward Yuri Terao.
2009: The IIHF opened an Asian office with the position of an IIHF Asian Sport Development Manager first held by Jukka Tiikkaja and since 2011 by Harald Springfeld to help the IIHF’s Asian members in their development programs. The office was first based in Tokyo and since 2012 in Hong Kong. Apart from pan-Asian development programs, camps, seminars, education and national development assistance, the office is also involved in organizing the IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia events.
2010: The United Arab Emirates became the first Arab nation to join the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program. In the World Championship Division III the UAE had a tight 3-2 loss to host Luxembourg and lost its other games to Greece and Ireland. In their third participation in 2014, the Emirati won their first game at this level, 6-1 against Georgia. Other Arab countries in the IIHF include Kuwait, Morocco, Oman and Qatar while recreational ice hockey is also played in other countries including Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
2011: The IOC Session awarded the 2018 Olympic Winter Games to PyeongChang. Korea will become the second Asian country to host the Olympic Winter Games. The ice sports venues are being built in the coastal city of Gangneung. Korea will be allowed automatic entry of a men’s and women’s ice hockey team and boosts its program with more games and camps for the national teams and new coaches in an attempt to decrease the gap to the top nations. Seoul-born former NHLers Jim Paek (head coach) and Richard Park (assistant coach) took over the men’s national team in 2014 while Sarah Murray, the daughter of legendary coach and IIHF Hall of Famer Andy Murray, coaches the women’s national team.
2012: The first-ever IIHF event was hosted in India in the city of Dehradun and in its 13th international game the Indians got their first-ever win, 5-1 vs. Macau, at the 2012 IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia. Unfortunately the rink that opened some months earlier has rarely been used for ice sports since. Ice hockey is most popular in the Northern part of the country close to the Himalayas where thousands of fans watch the Indian championship games on natural ice in Leh close to the border with Tibet, China. Due to the lack of a full-size indoor rink, hockey is only played for a few weeks in winter, which provides a challenge for the national team to prepare for its international games in spring.
2014: Korea hosted the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Goyang, a satellite city just outside of Seoul. It’s the highest level of ice hockey ever played and organized in the country. Unfortunately for the national team it wasn’t able to confirm its highest ranking ever from the year before and suffered relegation after losing all games. In 2015 Korea earned promotion back to the Division I Group A for the 2016 event in Krakow, Poland.
2015: The Southeast Asian Games will include ice hockey and ice skating as the first winter sports it was decided by the participating National Olympic Committees. The biennial event has taken place since 1959 and could further develop ice hockey in the region. The next edition will take place in September 2017 in Malaysia in the cities of Kuala Lumpur, Sabah and Sarawak. IIHF members in the region include Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand but recreational ice hockey is also played in countries such as Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam, and most recently ice hockey practices started in Cambodia.
2015: Picked 172nd overall, Chinese U18 national team defenceman Andong Song became the first player from China to be drafted by an NHL team. It was the New York Islanders, owned by Chinese-born businessman Charles Wong, who selected him. Song began to play in Beijing at the age of six. His parents brought him to the ice because the doctors recommended him to breathe cold air due to his pharyngitis. He fell in love with the game and by the time he was 10 his family had moved to Canada to help make his dream of a career as a hockey player come true. He got a scholarship at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey where he played the last two years but he also travelled back to China to represent Beijing in the national junior championship and the U18 national team in the last two editions of the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division II Group B. Song was accompanied at the draft in Florida by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, which has recently become active in broadcasting hockey including the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. In China Song was headlined after the draft as “po bing zhe”, the ice breaker. That’s something China could need in view of its attempt to improve hockey and bring the 2022 Olympic Winter Games to Beijing. Song hopes to play college hockey starting in 2016 and become NHL-ready in five years.