Andong Song Is Powering China's Growing Interest in Hockey
Andong Song, 18, became the first Chinese-born player to be drafted to the NHL this past June when the Islanders selected him in the sixth round.
Photo by Alan Diaz-The Associated Press
This story originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.
Andong Song became the first native of China to be drafted by a National Hockey League team this past June: a sign of hard work, determination, and the broadening reach of Olympic hockey and the international arm of the NHL.
Taken by the Charles Wang-owned New York Islanders in the sixth round, 172nd overall, Song, 18, is a mobile defenceman who says he isn't overly physical but likes to make smart plays with his stick and skating ability. He tries to model himself after Detroit Red Wings great Nicklas Lidstrom.
It was a match between Russia and the United States at the 2002 Winter Games that initially caught the attention of Song, the first game of that calibre he remembers seeing. It's only fitting then that before Beijing was announced as the host of the 2022 Winter Olympics that Song was asked to be an ambassador for his home country's bid.
"I felt really honoured that they would ask me to go down there. I think I was the youngest member of the delegation," Song told VICE Sports. "China has a ways to go before we can be competitive with the top (hockey) nations but having the chance to host the Olympics will really boost support for hockey and winter sports in general."
In 2014, 120 million people in China watched NHL players compete in the Canada-Sweden gold medal final in Sochi, Russia, while 15 million watched from Canada, the birthplace of hockey.
There have been others of Chinese descent to play in the NHL. Names like Brandon Yip and Peter Ing come to mind, while Larry "King" Kwong was the first to break the ice by playing one shift with the New York Rangers in March 1948, less than one year after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's colour barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Those who played before Song were not born in China, however, making his story all the more unique while begging the question: what does China think of hockey?
"When I was growing up, we rarely had hockey on TV and the community wasn't big," Song said. "Now is a different story. They broadcast three or four games a week and there's more talk around hockey and rinks are being filled. Compared to before, it's categorical how much we've grown."
The 2015 NHL draft was a momentous day for the Song family, the Islanders, and for China at large. State television broadcaster CCTV—which showed this year's Stanley Cup Final for the first time—reported that 2.5 million people tuned in to witness Song's selection by the New York club.
"I didn't think that that many people were watching the draft," Song said. "It's insane to hear how many people stayed up at night—it was one or two a.m. back in China when I got drafted."
It is practically insane to think in terms of numbers that large. What's the difference between 2.5 million and 120 million in the mind of one person? Song, understandably, narrowed it down to one image.
"Most fondly I think I'll remember my family being there and that when they announced my name, my parents stood up before they (finished) calling my name and started jumping," he said.
Song's parents, Yu Song and Bei Gao, sound like most supportive moms and dads, without the learned, cultural history of hockey in their back pockets. One other thing distinguishes them from the crowd.
"(My parents) were both very calm (at games), they didn't yell or anything, not in public," Song said. "When I played bad, mom would get a little upset and then dad would try to coach me even though neither of them grew up playing hockey or even knowing hockey until I started. I listened to them, obviously, but sometimes they don't know what they were talking about."
Song had to play on any surface that was available to him during his childhood, whether it was a tiny rink in a shopping mall or a corner of a speed skating oval. He was scouted and moved to Canada at age 10 where he played his minor hockey in Oakville, Ontario. Yet he had played on Canadian soil previous to that, captaining his Beijing Cubs to a tournament victory at the Bell Capital Cup in Ottawa where he saw his first NHL game and took home his first set of hockey DVDs that he watched between skates.
"I remember (Daniel) Alfredsson, watching that game," he said. "Afterward, I kind of became a Senators fan and followed Alfredsson and his career. I was a Senators fan and now I'm obviously an Islanders fan."
While Canada has a reputation for being an inclusive, multi-ethnic boiling pot, no community—nor dressing room of young boys—is perfect. It wouldn't be a surprise to hear if Song had experienced prejudice growing up in sports.
"Everyone was very welcoming, very interested with why I came over, what it was like back in China," he said. "I wasn't left out of anything, everything was fair and I was very good friends with my teammates. They made the transition very easy for me, I think."
Helping to further make that transition is Islanders owner Wang—born in Shanghai in 1944—who sponsored hockey teams in China that Song grew familiar with as a boy. He finally met Wang at an Islanders development camp and said that he and his family had a friendly chat with the owner.
Between Song's selection in the draft, Beijing's successful Winter Olympics bid and CCTV broadcasting hockey back home, this has been the year of the Chinese in hockey. One year is not enough to push beyond mere novelty, and Song—who plans to attend and play for Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts next year—is in no way thinking in these terms. The winter sport does not easily translate to countries without cold climates, and organizations—particularly Hockey Canada—can go soul searching if their nation doesn't stay on top of the world.
When hockey reaches other shores, as it will before Beijing at Pyeongchang, South Korea, at the 2018 Games, it's in the best interest of the sport to allow others to gain a foothold. This is a win for Andong Song and for future skaters in non-traditional cities and towns, but it's hockey that always stands to benefit from opening its doors a little wider.
"When people play for their country, I think that's really special for an athlete to do something not only for your career but for your nation," Song said.
Or for your sport, which Song can now lay claim to having nearly reached its pinnacle on the other side of the world.