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Chi-Yin Tse: Home Away from Home

Hockey wasn’t always a part of Tse’s life. He was told he didn’t belong. But now, he may as well live at the rink.
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Devoted” isn’t a strong enough descriptor. 

“Addicted”? No. How about “immersed”? The best way to describe Chi-Yin Tse’s hockey existence in Oakland, Calif., would be that he simply lives the sport. He spends most of his hours on Earth engulfed in hockey, helping make it accessible for those who face barriers to participating. How many hours a week does Tse put into the game? Let’s just say sleep finishes a distant second.

Some mornings, he arrives at the Oakland Ice Center, where he serves as director, as early as 5:30 a.m. He begins mapping out the coming weeks’ and months’ worth of hockey programming – for multiple ventures. Under the San Jose Sharks umbrella, that could mean planning for Jr. Sharks girls’ hockey. It could mean setting up curricula for Sharks Ice, a program under which Tse offers adult hockey classes and team play at all skill levels. It could mean volunteer work as a mentor coach developer and helping out as a coach for USA Hockey’s youth high-performance camps. It could mean fulfilling his duties as president of the Oakland Bears, a team that competes at multiple age levels in the Northern California Youth Hockey Association and the California Amateur Hockey Association. He’ll spend the day supervising all the players on the ice, ensuring any local league play runs smoothly. Heck, he’ll even jump in and officiate games if he has to. Some days, he stays at the rink until midnight.

Tse obviously adores hockey, but his passionate work comes from more than a place of love. He’s determined to effect change in a sport that locks out people in low-income brackets, people with disabilities or visible minorities. The cause is deeply personal because he’s spent his whole life swimming against the current in hockey. He came from a family culture unfamiliar with the game and was often told he didn’t belong, but he never walked away.

Tse, 39, grew up in Livingston, N.J., but his mother was from Taiwan and his father was from Hong Kong. Hockey didn’t grab Tse until his adolescent years. In the summer of 1994, his middle-school baseball team cut him and the MLB strike hit. He felt turned off by that sport. A friend of his was a Pittsburgh Penguins fan and suggested they play some road hockey to pass the time one day. Tse loved it.

By the following NHL season, 1994-95, he gravitated toward the New Jersey Devils, who happened to be enjoying a run to their first Stanley Cup. Hockey hooked him. He worshipped Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Paul Kariya. At 14, Tse asked his mom to buy him rollerblades. He wanted to immerse himself in the sport despite everyone who knew him scoffing at the idea. “I remember all of my friends were like, ‘What are you doing? You can’t skate, you’re too far behind, you’re never going to learn fast enough to play,’ ” Tse said. “And I was like, ‘Ah, I’m gonna do it.’ ”

He obsessed over learning to skate. He remembers driving his friends and family crazy. Within a couple years, he got a job at a local rink and started spending every day there. Settling in as a defenseman, he played competitive high-school hockey. He then played roller hockey while attending Northeastern University.

While Tse didn’t encounter much overt racism while competing in those years, he sometimes received it disguised as playful barbs from teammates, suggesting he was playing the wrong sport or, “Shouldn’t you be at karate?” and so on. “When you’re a young man, you’re just trying to fit in,” he said. “You don’t know how to take those kinds of comments. I didn’t see it as somebody telling me I couldn’t play. It was just a team. If somebody outside the team said it, people would stand up and say, ‘You can’t say that.’ ”

Even if, looking back now, he realizes his teammates’ comments weren’t OK, Tse remembers his formative hockey experiences as mainly positive. For him, hockey was a crucial part of growing up because it represented a concept he refers to as “third culture.”

In his house, his parents raised him in the culture from which they came. They spoke Chinese, celebrated Chinese New Year and didn’t assimilate under an American lifestyle. Whenever Tse left his house, it was the opposite. He did what he could to fit in, spoke English and adopted his friends’ interests. But hockey offered an opportunity to unify the East and West. “Hockey was the thing that made me feel complete,” he said. “The sport itself allowed me to bring in my cultural values and combine it with the sport’s values. In many ways, they are the same. Family is super important to our Chinese culture, so it is very comparable to a team locker room. Our values and opinions are treated with respect, and we would stand up for each other in any fashion.”

Perhaps that’s why, even when it looked like Tse would take a new career path, the road still led back to hockey. He earned a master’s degree from Northeastern in bioengineering. After moving to California in 2015 with his girlfriend, he began volunteering at a research lab while also exploring the hockey programs in the Bay Area.

As fate would have it, the hockey director at the Oakland Ice Center didn’t show up one day, and Tse ended up taking over. Coincidentally, reflecting the demographics of the Oakland area, a significant number of hockey enrollees came from Asian backgrounds. Tse was thus a relatable persona to head up the rink’s programming, much of which is part of the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone campaign.

Tse believes the sport is now more accessible to Asian cultures than when he first started following the game. “The stereotype when I was growing up was, (hockey players) just fight, they’re not very smart,” he said. “Those are all things that people who come to this country and whose children are first-generation don’t necessarily want their kids to be, right? And the first thing they see in hockey when they turn on a professional game is (players) beating each other, giving interviews afterwards, scars on their faces or blood running down their faces. They’re just immediately turned off by that image…but hockey overall has done a really good job of changing that image. You see more college players coming through now. They talk about grades being more important than the sport or included in the sport. Definitely less fighting.”

To Tse, just the act of entering a rink can be an intimidating experience for anyone who didn’t grow up around the game or have easy access to it – as a result of ethnic background, financial circumstance or disability. As someone who broke through that barrier, he’s on a mission to make the hockey rink a welcoming place for everyone, regardless of where they come from. 

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