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With only one women's ice hockey team registered in the country, China notched a significant breakthrough in the sport last week by picking up a silver medal at the Winter Universiade in Harbin, capital city of Heilongjiang province.

China's women's ice hockey players acknowledge the audience after losing the title game against Canada at the Harbin Winter Universiade on Feb 17. [Xinhua]

China's women's ice hockey players acknowledge the audience after losing the title game against Canada at the Harbin Winter Universiade on Feb 17. [Xinhua]

The team, led by Canadian head coach Paul Strople, came unstuck against Canada in the final but still made history with their charge to the podium at an international multiple-sports event.

China is now eyeing a top-five finish at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games but its appetite may have overshot the amount of food on the table as there are only several dozen players nationwide.

"Our goal at the Olympic Games is to have the best performance possible," said Strople. "We have the USA, Finland, Russia in our pool. We are going to win two or three games - (and) try to beat Finland and Russia. So hopefully we can get to the medal round. We want to be in the top five."

China qualified for the Feb 12-28, 2010 Winter Games by racking up three straight wins over Norway, Czech Republic and Japan last November. It is currently ranked world No 8.

The 19-woman Universiade squad is likely to be very similar to the side fielded in Vancouver, with most members hailing from snowy Harbin.

Chinese women's hockey experienced a golden period from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, with Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces boasting a combined 10 teams. The national side was always in medal contention at international tournaments in that period, winning the 1996 Asian Games and ranking fourth at the 1994 and 1997 World Championships.

The icing on the cake was the team's fourth-place finish at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano however and after coming so agonizingly close to a medal nothing less will satisfy China next winter.

Now the team hope to erase memories of the last two Olympics - they came 7th in Salt Lake City and missed out on Turin 2006 due to a contentious refereeing desision in qualifying - but the players remain in need of top-flight competition to stay sharp.

"There are only a very few amateur teams (here), let alone professional ones. It's very hard for us to play matches as there are almost no opponents," said captain Wang Linuo. "There are probably less than 100 female hockey players in China now, most of them living in northern cities like Harbin. It's like nobody knows hockey here and nobody wants to know."

Most of the players are young and survive on salaries of less than 2,000 yuan ($292) a month, but signs of the sport's fledgling growth are starting to appear.

"After we won our ticket to the Vancouver Games, more young players in our team were able to get a regular income and the officials are making more of an effort to help us," said Jing Fengling, a 27-year-old veteran of the team.

"Although we have experienced hard times, we never quit the sport because we love it. Our team are like a family that no one wants to leave."

The team have also started to lure sponsors of late. One Hong Kong businessman contributed $150,000 towards hiring a foreign coach and 800,000 yuan ($116,921) for training costs and prize money.

With opportunities to train and play overseas now firmly on the horizon, the coach is satisfied with how things are progressing.

"We are getting better and better. We are playing a lot of exhibition games and training outside the country. We've been to Canada and Russia. Playing more games makes it different," said Strople. "We need to use our skills and speed against those stronger teams."

(China Daily March 4, 2009)

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