Veterans leave the rink with no regrets

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As she left the rink at the end of the women's ice hockey game against Slovakia, China's captain, Wang Linuo, turned and took one last look at the ice in a moment filled with emotion.

The 30-year-old has bid farewell to the sport she took up at the age of seven with her team finishing seventh at the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.

On face value, it did not seem a convincing result for the Chinese but for Wang it was enough for her to leave with no regrets.

"I was very excited after the last game, not only because we won but also because we performed at our best," said Wang, who led the team to a 3-1 victory over Slovakia.

"It was very difficult for us to qualify for these Winter Olympics and we tried our very best. I can say I have no regrets about concluding my sports career right now."

Picking up the game almost a quarter of a century ago; Wang experienced all the ups and downs of the sport in China.

"When I was young, China's ice hockey was very strong and we gained a lot of glory for the country," Wang said. "However, due to the fast development of the sport in other countries, we fell into a more and more difficult situation."

Chinese women's hockey experienced a golden period from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s when the national side was always in medal contention at international tournaments. The team won at the 1996 Asian Games and finished fourth at the 1994 and 1997 World Championships.

It also finished fourth at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, which is considered the team's crowning achievement. But a lack of depth and poor training conditions led to a steady decline.

The team fell to seventh at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 and missed out on Turin 2006 due to a contentious refereeing decision in qualifying against Switzerland.

According to statistics, in the peak period, China had about 3,000 registered women's ice hockey players but that number now has dwindled to 80.

The members of the current national team - fewer than 20 players - are the only players in China deemed capable of competing at international-level competitions. What's more serious is that only about eight of them are considered experienced enough for top-level games, like the Olympics.

Due to the poor results, the team only gets limited support from the state. Some of the key players survive on a salary of 2,000 yuan ($292) a month while most of the younger ones receive support from their families.

"We insist on doing the sport because we love it from the bottom of our hearts and want nothing in return," said veteran forward Wang. "We play for the enjoyment of the sport and to earn glory for our country."

It is basically the same story for Sun Rui and Jin Fengling, who are 27 and, along with Wang, were the only players in the squad with prior Olympic experience as they competed in Salt Lake City eight years ago. All of the team's six goals at the Vancouver Games came from their sticks.

The two assistant captains also saw their Olympic dreams come to an end but expressed some reluctance to depart the ice as well.

"When the referee blew the whistle, I really hoped he could give us the chance to play more games at the Olympics," said Sun in tears. "I know it's the end of my Olympic trip. Although there are some regrets, I'm satisfied with what I did here. I tried my best."

Drawn in Group B at the Games, China had to play against ice hockey powerhouses the United States, Finland and Russia. They lost all three group matches and were also beaten by Switzerland 6-0 in the classification game, which forced them into a battle for seventh place.

Of the five games, losing to Switzerland was the most bitter pill to swallow.

"We lost to Switzerland due to our own fault," said Sun, who was injured but insisted on playing. She racked up a team-high 26 minutes of ice time.

"Since we really wanted to get revenge against them, we were under heavy pressure and even forgot how to play," she said alluding to the Turin Games playoff against the same foes.

However, their coach was satisfied with the team's final result.

"They have worked very well. We have played five games and I have to say in four games we played excellent. Maybe, in the game against Switzerland, we were a little bit nervous. But that is common as this is a high-level tournament and all the teams are well focused and well coached," said China's head coach, Hannu Juhani Saintula, who is from Finland.

"As I say, we did a very good job and we are proud of how they worked and how they trusted each other in some difficult situations."

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