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10 years later, an oral history of the China Sharks: Culture shock on ice

Ten years ago, the San Jose Sharks sent an envoy of players, coaches and executives to run the China Sharks and raise hockey’s profile in the most populated country in the world. It was a largely frustrating experience, full of culture shock and meddling officials. But it had its moments.

With Sheng Peng

Ice hockey in China is more than 100 years old, if you can believe it. According to Dave Bidini’s Tropic of Hockey, the sport was first played there in Shenyang in 1915. So hockey in China has actually been around longer than the NHL.

Of course, getting the Chinese hooked on the sport is another story. At the IIHF’s last count, there are just 1,100 registered players in China. This from a country of nearly 1.4 billion. Regardless, the NHL has been under the spell of the world’s largest economy for more than a decade. The Charles Wang-owned New York Islanders were the harbinger, opening an office in Harbin, the largest city in northeastern China, in 2005. Since then, the Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals have held youth and coaching clinics in China.

But before the Kings and Canucks squared off in the first NHL pre-season games in China in September, the league’s boldest incursion into the Middle Kingdom belonged to the San Jose Sharks and Chris Collins 10 years earlier.

Chris Collins, China Sharks GM, 2007-09: In 2005, I met somebody in China for something completely unrelated to hockey. Professor Bo Hu from Renmin University came to me about some video-streaming technology. We met and he asked my background. He said, “It’s funny, I do a lot of work with the Chinese government and the Chinese Winter Sports Bureau, and they need help with the sport of hockey.” By 2006, I approached a number of people I knew in the NHL, including Greg Jamison. Greg was my former boss with the San Jose Sharks. He expressed to me right away that the Sharks were interested in China. I told the Chinese Ice Hockey Association that I was bringing an NHL club with me. And it was going to be the Sharks, Stars, Canucks or two other teams. Clearly, my loyalties to Greg at that time and my former employers were deep.

Steve McKenna, China Sharks defenseman, 2008-09: Chris saw the potential before a lot of people did.

Collins: Whatever the (San Jose) Sharks got, I got. The problem was, there was no infrastructure for hockey in China.

There was, however, a pair of professional hockey teams already in China. From 2004 to ’07, the Harbin and Qiqihar franchises earned a total of 29 combined wins in 228 Asia League Ice Hockey games, frequent victims of the ALIH’s more established Japanese and Korean entries. In September 2007, Sharks Sports and Entertainment president & CEO Greg Jamison announced the best players from the two Chinese pro teams would come together to form the China Sharks. Developmentally, the Sharks would also be considered the Chinese national team. San Jose would contribute five import players and three coaches to the Beijing-based squad. Collins, who did color commentary for San Jose from 1992 to ’97, was named GM. Derek Eisler, a San Jose assistant from 1993 to ’96, was tapped as coach. Jason Beeman, Dan Knapp, Kevin Korol, Keegan McAvoy and goaltender Zach Sikich, all of whom had major junior, collegiate or minor league experience, were the imports. The China Sharks debuted Sept. 29, 2007, against the Nikko Ice Bucks in Beijing. Official attendance? 280.

Derek Eisler, China Sharks coach, 2007-09: In Beijing, it was like the little community rink.

Zach Sikich, China Sharks goalie, 2007-08: The first game, we played the Nikko Ice Bucks and a Chinese team had never won a game against that team before. I made like 38 saves on 39 shots and we won 4-1. We were outshot significantly. It was like we had won the Stanley Cup. There were Chinese dignitaries coming in and giving us hugs. Thanking us.

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Chris Collins, right, and IIHF vice-president Sho Tomita at the China Sharks’ introductory press conference in 2007.

Collins was the GM, but the Chinese Ice Hockey Association, the sport’s national governing body, was very involved. Some would say too involved.

Collins: After our second game, the CIHA, not directly, sent over a third-level guy. He asked me, “Where’s the money you pay the imports with?” And I go, “Pardon me?” He said, “Where’s that payroll at? You give it to us. We’ll pay them the Chinese way.” And I said, “You’ve gotta be out of your f—ing mind. Are you drunk? We’re not giving you our money to pay the players. We pay the players.” He said, “Well, we do it the Chinese way. That way, we motivate them. If a player doesn’t play well, we hold the money away from them.” I said, “Really? What do you do with the money?” And he replied, “Well, that’s none of your business.” He actually said this to me after our second game, knowing we had already set up the structure with what we were going to do. They wanted to change the rules.

Sikich: We went over there and were in a real nice international hotel. My understanding is the CIHA took over operations, and while we were in Japan, they told us they were changing the hotel situation. They moved my wife and the other guys’ girlfriends and wives into the equivalent of a Motel 6 in China. The place was so, so, so disgusting. We had to put down sheets on the floor and sheets on the couch just to even operate. Not fit for living.

After their opening night triumph, the Sharks lost 11 of their next 12 games, though Sikich managed to keep them close in most contests. But mid-season, Sikich was released because of a personality conflict with Eisler. Collins brought in former Ottawa Senators prospect Kelly Guard to take over in net.

eisler: In that particular trip (to Anyang, Korea), we pulled up to our hotel…and it was a youth hostel.

Kelly Guard, China Sharks goalie, 2007-08: I just finished flying, I don’t know how many hours, into Seoul (from Los Angeles). I was so tired, but I had to sleep on the floor. That was their bed there. It was just a little mat on the floor with a pillow. It was tough to get through that night.

eisler: It was kind of a battle of wills with the Chinese wanting us to stay in certain places.

After just two appearances, Guard fled Asia for Austria. He never played one game on Chinese soil. But the CIHA wasn’t done with their meddling.

Collins: The national team decided if their players wanted to eat hot and sour soup in the morning with dumplings, that was acceptable. That was the Chinese way. And I told them this is not about the Chinese way or the Japanese way or the American way. This is about competing and representing the flag of this nation. That was either fought or fell on deaf ears. I said to them, “Look, why don’t you go talk to (Olympic gold medalist) Liu Xiang. Go ask him if he eats dumplings and hot and sour soup for breakfast when he’s getting ready to run against the greatest high hurdlers in the world.” When you have major issues like this you have to overcome, you could understand that on-ice technique and training takes a back seat because you spend extra time arguing about ridiculous things that would be obvious to you, to me, and even to a lot of Chinese people.

eisler: There was a Sharks coach who was reporting a lot of stuff to the CIHA. We took care of it ourselves. We put him up top. We didn’t give him any bench liberties. In practice, he was just pushing pucks. We never gave him any valuable stuff. Because we thought he would report it right back to the CIHA.

collins: In Year 1, it was like ramming your head into the wall on a daily basis.

As Collins was fending off the CIHA, the Sharks were fighting among themselves.

eisler: The Chinese, for centuries and centuries, have been identified by their own little communities. To get a player from Harbin to really trust a player from Qiqihar, it was really, really hard. It was much better off for us to put players from the same cities together rather than try to push that on them in Year 1. We just started putting the Harbin guys with the Harbin guys, Qiqihar with Qiqihar.

collins: You have cities fighting with one another. The players hate each other. You can’t create a national team from that.

eisler: I think we were playing Seibu in Japan. A Qiqihar shooter rung a Harbin goalie off the head. And the goalie took exception to it and swung his stick at him. Again, it was Harbin and Qiqihar. So we had our first fight. It just so happened to be our own team.

One Chinese skater, however, stood head and shoulders above the rest. But Wang
Zhiqiang would suffer for it.

collins: His nickname was ‘Rock Star.’ We called him that because he had dyed red hair and skated like Bobby Orr. He was an NHL-level skater. And he was fearless.

mckenna: He could just go a million miles an hour.

eisler: He stuck out. He wasn’t your typical Chinese, toeing the line. He wanted to create his own line. And he did. We let him have that freedom.

mckenna: He looked like every boy-band poster that little girls have on the wall.

collins: He was from Qiqihar. We immediately made him the centerpiece of our offense. There were people in the Qiqihar sports bureau who did not like that we were doing this. In a lot of these sports, the older Asians automatically get all the favors. But that’s all bulls—. That’s not the way you play in the real world. In the real world, if you’re the best player, get your ass on the field and compete and be the best guy.

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Things were done differently in China, which took some getting used to for coach Derek Eisler (middle) and player Steve McKenna (right).

But here comes ‘Rock Star,’ 24 years old.

mckenna: He was one of the players the federation was pushing back on.

collins: At the end of the year, we informed four of our players – Liu Henan, Cui Zhinan, Wang Jiang and ‘Rock Star’ – that we were inviting them to the upcoming San Jose Sharks rookie training camp. Major deal. Never been done before in the history of the NHL. ‘Rock Star’ was the trophy piece. We were convinced – we showed video to (Sharks) scouts, who wanted him right away – he would’ve been signed to an AHL deal. My prediction, he would’ve played in the NHL. What happened was, in the off-season, we let the players know. And of course, they let all their friends know. And then, in a simple pick-up practice, at a rink in Qiqihar, two guys came from behind and cross-checked him head-first into a wall and broke his shoulder in three places. They called us immediately and told us our guy got hurt. We asked if it was severe. They told us that it wasn’t. And then we found out two days later that it was severe. I went to Greg and I said, “We have to get him over here.” He said, “OK, we’ll have the Sharks’ doctors repair his shoulder.” By the time anybody in China would answer us back, we got the message from one of his friends that they had gone in, operated on the shoulder, and actually used a coat hanger to wire the shoulder together. So he was done. Career over.

eisler: He didn’t get along with the leadership of the CIHA.

Collins: Do I think I know what happened? Absolutely. Somebody inside of Qiqihar, maybe it was a player, pulled a bulls— thing on him and he got hurt. You can draw your conclusion after that. I wasn’t there, I didn’t see it. All I know is they ruined him. He was one of those once-in-a-generation talents for China hockey. Not for North America or Europe. But for China. That matters when you’re trying to build something.

After a rough year in Beijing – the Sharks finished in last place, winning three games in a 30-game regular season – they moved to Shanghai for 2008-09. The San Jose organization resolved to wrest more control of its China-based affiliate from the CIHA.

eisler: (San Jose’s parent company, Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment) took control of a lot of it. When we were on the road, it was first-class type of hotels. In Shanghai, we actually had our own big dressing room. We had a nice facility. The rink had just opened. It was actually pro hockey.

Collins signed NHL veterans McKenna and goaltender Wade Flaherty to serve as player-assistant coaches. The Sharks’ new home in Shanghai, Songjiang Stadium, was at the center of Songjiang University Town, which housed eight college campuses. They tried a bold marketing strategy to get the attention of the students, highlighting McKenna’s 6-foot-8 frame.

mckenna: We would take bicycles to the rink. Wade Flaherty was an NHL goalie. Had some success, made some money. We were riding our bikes, and we’d both look at each other and we were laughing at the same time. He goes, “If anybody ever saw this, they’d just go crazy. Here’s two guys who played in the NHL. I have a Mercedes at home. And here we are, riding these little bikes with baskets on them to the rink.”

Despite these eye-catching additions, there was still a lot more losing going on than winning. But there was also clear progress, as the Sharks continued to take points from teams which had toyed with them in years past, such as forcing Japan’s most successful pro franchise, the Oji Eagles, to a shootout Oct. 4, 2008.

eisler: It was their first point ever (against Oji). It was amazing. The exuberance of all those players, they had never felt that. It was like a mite team winning their first hockey game.

mckenna: It was like a win. That was huge. It’s those little things, those little steps, that mean so much.

The team’s growth wasn’t just confined to the ice. Off the ice, the walls between players were also coming down.

eisler: The second year, we really tried to break down that barrier and have them work a bit more as a group. We had just got a couple of Japanese players. It was the first time Japanese players had ever been signed by the Chinese team. Masakazu Sato was playing with Lei Chen. Somebody took offense to it over by the player bench. And Lei Chen took offense to them. That’s an instance of a Chinese player sticking up for a Japanese player. That was one of those barriers that was broken in that second year.

The Sharks were also building a small but passionate fan base in Shanghai.

collins: We were making massive in-roads. We had games on TV and people were starting to take notice.

eisler: In Beijing, we didn’t really have any fans. The biggest crowd we got was about 600. In Shanghai, I think we got about 2,500 a game. Opening night in Shanghai, I think there was 5,000.

Along with bigger crowds, the Sharks were seeking bigger stars mid-season. Enter Claude Lemieux. Five years removed from his last NHL action, the four-time Stanley Cup champion and 1995 playoff MVP was itching to lace up the skates again.

collins: We worked heavily on an old friend of mine from my San Jose days: Jeff Friesen. But he had young kids and didn’t know if he could get over. Claude had made noises about wanting to get back into the NHL. But nobody knew if he could still play. In a meeting between (San Jose GM) Doug Wilson, myself, Greg and Michael Mudd, who ran (San Jose’s AHL affiliate in) Worcester, we volunteered to take him in China. We approached Claude. He wasn’t even concerned about salary. He told us to just pay his expenses.

The veteran of 21 NHL seasons was in for some culture shock, however.

eisler: When Claude Lemieux joined us, he flew into Beijing for a tournament. The hotel put him up in a maid’s closet for the first night. I got up in the morning. I asked Frank, who was our interpreter, “Has Claude showed up?” He takes me down to the end of the hallway. And I actually had to move the maid cart out of the way after I opened the door. There’s his feet hanging off the bed. I can still remember his face. It was shock. He couldn’t believe he was in China and they put him in a maid closet. He took it well. First thing out of his mouth, he joked, “I want the Four Seasons. Give me the Four Seasons.” He had a room. He just needed a place to sleep for a couple of hours before his room became available. So they put him in a maid closet.

In return, Lemieux gave his teammates some more positive “culture shock.” This, despite suiting up for just two ALIH games.

collins: He was fantastic. He was at the rink first. He was working out. He took the time to talk to everybody. The players, if they didn’t know him, soon found out the legend of him. Even the opposing players came to talk to him before the game. Then on the ice, he’d knock them on their ass.

eisler: In Halla, the team wasn’t passing and doing things at a very good clip, and he let them know. He let them have it.

collins: Nobody outworked this guy. We gave glowing reviews to Doug. They brought him to the AHL at Worcester. He was good there. So they brought him back to the NHL.

However, for all the progress that was being made on the ice – the Sharks matched the previous season’s total of three wins in half the time (14 games) – the CIHA still loomed over everything, especially the Chinese players.

eisler: Players’ money was being put back into the clubs and old coaches back home because that was the demand from the CIHA. Chris said, “This isn’t going to happen.” He competed for all those guys. To keep them not only satisfied with being a China Shark, but also to know that they didn’t have to send their money back to their old club. This was their money. This wasn’t Chinese money.

One the ugliest clashes between Collins and the CIHA was still on the horizon.

collins: They had a really controversial play-in tournament for the women’s national teams for 2010 Vancouver. China, Japan, and a couple other teams got to play in it. The CIHA brought the teams in and commandeered our building. Well, SVSE paid for the building. We were the lease on the building. But the CIHA was like, “You’re on the road, so we’re going to use this ice for this tournament.” All of a sudden, we’re getting calls. I know three of the other coaches on the women’s teams. And they’re saying, “Hey, we can’t find any ice. We’re stuck in China for a week and the Chinese women are practicing everyday in your building and we’re not practicing.”

eisler: The Chinese actually didn’t want to give them ice at all.

collins: The next day, we were leaving on a road trip, so I told the other teams to come on down. We’ll just give the ice to you. The Chinese team wasn’t scheduled to skate.

eisler: The day of, a Chinese delegate and this really strange translator were trying to stop the Zamboni. They wanted to keep the Zamboni from resurfacing the ice. They tried to bully the Zamboni driver. The Japanese team tried to come out of the tunnel. Waiting there was the Chinese delegation.

collins: The Japanese show up, they go on the ice. The interpreter and two other officials from the Chinese women’s team try to chase the Japanese women off. Throwing sticks at them and swearing at them and screaming at them.

mckenna: They turned the lights off. They opened the doors. They were telling the Zamboni to go on as the Japanese team was trying to practice. Chris went down. There was a bit of a heated exchange. He had a cup of tea and threw it at the CIHA guy.

collins: They come over and think they’re going to take me on. Telling me, “We’re going to turn you into the government. You’re against China.” I said, “What the f— are you talking about? You have a tournament starting here, you dumb f—. In three days. They need ice.” I still can’t believe what they did.

By the end of 2008-09, the Sharks had more than doubled their total wins – three to seven – from the previous season. It was the first year in ALIH history that a participating Chinese club hadn’t finished the season in last place, as China had managed to climb over Nikko. However, for the San Jose organization, this relative on-ice success was still overshadowed by their ongoing frustration with the CIHA.

Collins: There were a lot of CIHA people put into roles that had no idea about the game. They were clueless, saying, “We play hockey the Chinese way.” To which my incredulous answer always was, “The national team plays in Division II, Group B.”

eisler: For every good thing that happened in China at that time, five bad things would happen. You always felt like you weren’t ever pushing forward because the CIHA was the CIHA. They were like, “What’s in it for me?” Whether it’s money, whether it’s the CIHA taking credit for things, whether it was who’s paying for the next trip.

mckenna: They’re old school. They’re very set in their ways. They liked the way it was. It was working for them. But it doesn’t build a hockey organization. They had an agenda. They want to be respected as the powers of hockey (nationally). It was almost more about them and their decisions than it was about the players.

eisler: When it came to the pro hockey side of things, they were way over their head.

Everything boiled over in July 2009, when Collins met with the CIHA to discuss the terms for the 2009-10 season. Collins had planned to bring five former NHLers to Shanghai: McKenna, Shane Endicott, Joel Prpic, Ricard Persson and, possibly, goalie Chris Beckford-Tseu, as Flaherty was set to retire.

collins: We told the CIHA that we expected them to meet certain criteria. Like off-season development, World Championship team development, where we controlled the coaches. We needed to have more access to the players. We wanted to create – and I got approval from the ALIH – a second Asian League team that would only be younger players. And they didn’t agree with that. But we were paying the bills. They said we want you back, but you just give us the money, and we’ll run everything. We laughed. We said, “We’re done.”

The Sharks and the NHL immediately pulled out of China and the ALIH. The rechristened China Dragon would win one game over the next five years. That’s one win in 192 contests.

collins: Of course, they destroyed the team. They lost every game they played. What’s funny is that in 2011, at the Asian University Games, they made an approach at us to come back. (Then-IIHF second-in-command) Sho Tomita was in the meeting. And we laughed at the CIHA. There’s nobody who will come here unless the CIHA changes their leadership. We had discussions with (then-KHL president) Alexander Medvedev and Slava Fetisov back then. They badly wanted either to have the Asian League in Russia or have us run a KHL team in Beijing. But we couldn’t tell them in any clearer terms that the Chinese weren’t ready for that.

China currently sits 35th in IIHF rankings. They have not risen above 34th since the departure of the Sharks in 2009.

collins: The men’s program is aimless. It doesn’t win.

eisler: What has happened is a lot of what we did and what we pushed has taken steps backwards because of the CIHA.

collins: They will never be an international player until they develop netminders.

eisler: I just saw them in the World Championship three years ago. I don’t think it’s gotten any better. I think their treatment of players has gotten better. But I don’t think the overall structure has gotten better. It’s pretty easy to defend them.

Despite China’s stagnation in hockey on the international stage, the government has taken an active interest in the program’s improvement, with an eye toward being competitive at the 2022 Beijing Games. Only four years away from hosting the Olympics, the CIHA is finally changing the guard and loosening its grip. Giving taskmaster Mike Keenan control over the Kunlun Red Star’s hockey operations is an indication of that. Signing North American-Chinese pros like Zach Yuen to the KHL side, with the intention of adding him to the national team, is another. The Chinese way, as it has in so many other fields, is evolving.

mckenna: That respect for your elders is rooted in the culture. It’s a great thing. I loved the way they treat their family, their grandparents. Unfortunately, in sports, everything has to change. You have to get younger.

As the China Sharks were intended to be, the Kunlun Red Star and its minor league affiliates will serve as the primary developmental ground for the Chinese national team.

eisler: The China Sharks were the ground zero of the explosion what we have now. Hockey has really exploded from that point on. More NHL teams have gotten over there in recent years because of what the Sharks did before. The kid who was drafted, (Andong Song, selected 172nd overall by the Islanders in 2015) he was actually in one of our clinics when we were in Beijing.

mckenna: The one thing that I found about working with the Chinese players, they just took in everything you said. They were so proud to learn something new, to do something different and better. Anything you told them, they would try to do. I don’t think they had that type of coaching before. Athletically, they are on par with any country. They work hard and they’re dedicated. They just need that extra bit of coaching and (hockey) experience.

Collins believes the NHL is on the right path.

collins: The NHL has done it brilliantly. They’ve allowed this to nurture. They’ve kept an eye on it. They’ve set some rules for it. And now, they have sponsorship coming back to NHL arenas from Chinese companies. They’ve had multiple teams go over and have clinics and develop relationships. They’re going to do exhibition and regular season games in China. And they’ll make sure their trademark, which means their merchandising, can now be done legally there. However, I think for the game to explode in China, we need to see Chinese owners in North American teams. We need to see a vested interest that way.

Between the NHL, KHL and a more open-minded CIHA, hockey in China finally appears to be on the right track. But the architects of the China Sharks can’t help but think about the sport’s past, lost decade.

collins: There’s a generation of players who missed their chance to potentially come and play pro hockey in North America because of the selfishness and greed of a couple people.

eiSLer: It would’ve been a really good thing by now.

collins: Everybody in the Asian League wanted to play for us. San Jose was committed for another couple years. I also found a major benefactor in China who was ready to be the No. 1 sponsor. He would’ve underwritten virtually all of it. We were poised for greatness.