Hockey is hockey.
That’s one of the immediate realizations, upon first arriving at Xiaolang International Ice Rink in Beijing, China.
The rink is nearly 7,000 miles away from Boston. It has two sheets of ice, with overlooks for spectator viewing. There are signs lining the walls, with one that projects the motivational motto: “Be Hungry. Be Crazy.”
It is the home rink of the Little Wolf hockey family, but it served as the Bruins’ home away from home for a week of youth hockey clinics.
The mission? To help grow the game.
Current Bruins Matt Beleskey and David Pastrnak made the trek across the world to help host the clinics, along with alumni Andrew Raycroft and Bob Sweeney, and the Bruins Youth Hockey Development Team.
The trip — “Bruins Global: China 2016” — was made possible through a partnership with Ocean 24 Sports & Entertainment client, Beijing-based company O.R.G. Packaging and the Chairman of O.R.G., Mr. Zhou Yunjie. It represents a joint initiative to help introduce the Bruins to hockey and culture in China, while they help grow the sport of hockey abroad with their knowledge and skills.
“It’s been great,” Beleskey said of the experience. “You see all of the kids having fun and working hard. When you see kids playing hockey and having fun, it’s always a good time.”
“I want to thank Mr. Zhou and everybody from O.R.G. for their hospitality,” said Sweeney, current Executive Director of the Boston Bruins Foundation. “Ever since we landed, everything has been great. They’ve really looked after us on the ice, off the ice. Great food — we’ve had some fabulous meals, which has been really fun and really a unique experience, so ‘thank you’ on behalf of the Bruins. The hospitality from O.R.G. has been off the charts.”
With a week of the trip wrapped up, the Bruins were set to jet two hours South of Beijing and head to Shanghai for three more days of youth clinics, before returning to North America. In all, the trip spans 13 days.
“It’s great to be able to come over here and try and teach kids from across the world,” said Beleskey. “They don’t speak the same language, but you can still talk about hockey or teach hockey, so it’s been great for us to come over here and be able to do that, and we’re just having fun with it.”
For six hours every day, Chinese youth players ages 6-14 participated in the clinics, learning from the pros.
There was plenty of patience involved with the language barrier, but often hockey can often be best learned by watching, and repetition.
“Some of the terms in hockey are motions, so they can watch you do a drill and then know what to do,” said Beleskey. “So it’s fun to watch them have fun and to see the game being loved over here as well.”
The Bruins have been actively learning the language, though, to try and communicate better with the kids.
“I try to,” smiled Beleskey. “Usually they just look at me like I’m crazy when I’m trying to say it, so I think I’ve got some work to do there.”
The clinics also took the Bruins back in time, to their days attending hockey camps and learning the game.
“The guys have been great,” said Sweeney. “Especially with demonstrating the drills. I think the younger kids really gravitated towards a guy like David.”
“It’s definitely a new sport for them — it’s not something they’re used to playing forever, so it’s new but I think every year, it’s going to be bigger,” said Pastrnak. “They’ve got the people who can play hockey — it’s just about them learning it and finding the right people who are going to teach them.”
The Bruins were hands-on all week, leading on-ice instruction, as well as off-ice training, teaching new stretches and drylands routines catered towards hockey.
“I think for them to learn a little bit of off-ice training, it’s important, because it’s a big part of training for hockey now, how you deal with it off the ice,” said Beleskey. “I’m teaching them a couple of drills that we know, and I’m sure they could teach us a few things as well.”
The “Bruins Global” trip first kicked off with a ceremony to welcome the Bruins to Beijing at the “Bird’s Nest,” the main Olympic stadium used during the Summer Olympics in 2008.
Mixed in with the clinics, there have been plenty of introductions to the local food, hospitality, and historical attractions with sightseeing to the Summer Palace, Forbidden City and, of course, hiking the Great Wall.
“There’s so much history,” said Sweeney. “Some of the parts are 5,000 years old, which is incredible, so that’s a unique experience in itself, being able to see all of the history in China.”
After the clinics wrapped up, there was a Hockey Fan Fiesta at an massive shopping mall in Beijing, Paradise Walk, complete with an indoor ice rink in the middle of the mall.
The Bruins signed autographs, posed for countless photos and ran through basic fundamentals on the ice for youth players. The extravaganza and enormously warm welcome was likely not what the B’s crew expected, but the week has not been short of pleasant surprises.
“I never imagined playing and teaching hockey in a mall in Beijing,” smiled Raycroft. “So it was a lot of fun. The kids were excited and everyone seems to be happy that we were here, so it was a good time and we had fun.”
“You know, you never really know what you’re going to get, so for them to be excited to see us, is fun and it gets us excited to go out and try and help them out as much as we can.”
Overall, the trip has been an eye-opening experience, as well as an introduction to the sport’s current state and potential for growth in China.
“It’s been incredible; it’s been wild,” said Raycroft. “Lots to see, lots to take in, and Beijing’s been a great city for us to travel around and see, and I think we’ve done most of it now, so it’s been fun. Off to Shanghai next!”
“It’s been great that [O.R.G.] was able to make this partnership with the Bruins and be able to bring us over here and show us their world,” said Beleskey. “They were over in Boston earlier this year — I think everyone had fun there and we’re having a great time here in China.”
The Bruins have certainly enjoyed the experience thus far, with plenty more to take in from Shanghai.
“You come over here and you see kids and maybe they don’t get to watch as much hockey, but the game seems to be taking off here,” said Beleskey. “I think it’s great for the growth of the game and the growth of China’s hockey.”