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Chinese Women Ice Hockey Striving on 'Freezing Point'
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Sun Rui could not stop her tears from dropping off her face. The simple numbers of "2-4" on the screen board meant not only a second loss to Japan following their sorrow four years ago but also a big blow to the Chinese women ice hockey players.


China's women team, ranked atop in Asia and seventh in the world, came to the 6th Asian Winter Games on home soil, hoping nothing but the gold medal of the five-team tournament. However, they were stunned by straight losses to both Japan and Kazakhstan for another third-place finish just as they did in the last edition in Aomori, Japan in 2003.


The 24-year-old Sun was so upset that she could say nothing but "sorry". She just cannot digest the huge fall from the fourth in the Nagano Olympics in 1998 to the third in Asiad nine years later.


"Ten years ago, we were unbeatable in Asia and we won by at least 10 goals in every match against Japan and the other teams," said Gong Xiqing, manager of the Chinese team. "But now..."


The fourth place in the 1998 Winter Olympics was not the highest ranking that the Chinese women have achieved, but was their last piece of sweet memory.


"We had a golden time from the late 80s to the early 90s, when there were almost 10 teams in both Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces," said Gong. "And our national team always made the top three in the international tournaments around 1995, including the World Championships."


However, hard time started even before the 1998 Olympic Games.


"To run an ice hockey team really costs much," said manager Gong. "3 to 4 million yuan (about US$500,000) a year is too much for a provincial team."


And women's ice hockey even doesn't make the National Games' agenda, another key reason for the shrinking of the sport. Jilin Province, where the 6th Winter Asiad is being staged, canceled the sport in 1997 to leave only one team since then throughout the most populous country with a population of 1.3 billion.


"Harbin women's ice hockey is the only team we have now, and the members of the national squad are all from them," said Gong. "The other teams were very surprised that we could make the fourth in the 1998 Olympic Games."


After they finished fifth in the 1999 World Championships and sixth in both the 2000 and 2001 worlds, they dropped again to seventh in the Salt Lake City Games the following year. Two years later, the Chinese women suffered the "Black Seven Seconds" in a qualification match against Switzerland and failed to feature in the Olympics for the first time in 2006, triggering off a fear that the Harbin team, the only formal team in the country would be disbanded.


"That's really hard for China's women ice hockey," said Lan Li, a winter sports official, after the loss in August, 2004. "Losing the chance to compete in the Olympics will have huge affect upon the girls."


According to statistics, there are around 100 women playing ice hockey in China, including a large portion of amateurs who can hardly skate fluently and freely at will.


"We don't even have any opponents to play against," said Zou Dong, assistant team manager. "We have to seek the help of the men's team sometimes."


"The players of the national team, still strong in the world, receive a humble monthly salary of 300 to at most 800 yuan (about US$40 to 110)," he added.


Fortunately, the sport is still surviving through the hardship. The national team started to invite coaches from abroad since 2003 and Jorma Siitarien of Finland has taken the helm to lead the young Chinese team to Vancouver for training.


"We formed a new team to prepare for the Winter Asiad and the Olympics," said Zou. "Half of the members are teenagers with the youngest at 17 years old."


Heading to the Winter Asiad with the goal of taking back the title, the young Chinese players suffered their stunning moment here. However, Siitarien and his protegees still cherish the hope for the future.


"They are young and have great potential," said Siitarien, with the sight upon the coming World Championships in Canada in April, although the full promotion of the sport nationwide remains a heavy task.


"There are 5,000 to 6,000 women ice hockey players in Canada, and even in Japan, there are dozens of clubs," said Gong. "We have to attract more kids to the sport, the only way for us to ever dare to dream of a real boom."


"Harbin has made great contribution to the women's team, and we are looking for sponsors also," he added.


According to Gong, rinks have been built in developed cities and provinces, such as Shanghai and Guangdong, most of which located in south China. However, they still need good coaches.


"We are expecting the earlier coming of the day that ice hockey becomes popular throughout the whole country, at least in all the three northern provinces, the cradle of the winter sports in China," said Gong.


(Xinhua News Agency February 4, 2007)

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