For a kid who grew up in China, Rudi Ying was in a pretty good place for a hockey player this week. The 17-year-old center and fellow Beijing product Wei Zhong both took part in the BioSteel summer camp in Toronto, meaning they were sharing the ice and playing alongside Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall, Connor McDavid and a host of other NHLers and top prospects.
“It’s unbelievable," Ying said. "It’s the highest-level camp I’ve ever been to. Being on the same ice as these guys I watched growing up is a dream come true. You see them as these sort of untouchable beings, but in the room, they’re just regular guys. They’re really nice people.”
When defenseman Andong Song was selected in the sixth round of the draft by the New York Islanders this summer, it represented a watershed moment in Chinese hockey. Then Beijing was awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics and all of a sudden the hockey world had to begin thinking of what a Chinese men's team would look like (the Chinese women are further ahead in terms of IIHF rankings).
For Ying, who is eligible for the NHL draft in 2016, it has all been a whirlwind, especially since he would hypothetically be in his peak years when those Olympics arrive.
“It’s just exciting knowing that it’s something to work towards," he said. "Hopefully I’ll be there playing for my country when the time rolls around.”
Ying noted how important is was for Song to open the door for Chinese prospects and the two national squad teammates have a lot in common. Both were born and raised in Beijing, but left for North America to pursue hockey. Song went to the Toronto suburbs, while Ying landed in Chicago (and then the Boston area). Both now play at prep schools in the Eastern U.S. and have designs on college. But how good are they, compared to their North American-born peers?
Song was a complete unknown when the Islanders drafted him, while Ying still has a lot to prove on the ice. He had one point in 14 games for Phillips-Exeter last season and was not on Central Scouting's initial watch list for 2016.
"He is skilled," said one NHL scout. "But I don't think he thinks the game well."
The silver lining is that Ying has a whole season to up his knowledge in that department. So he could have a breakout campaign and put himself in the draft conversation. But he will be doing so under a great spotlight, unlike many of his peers on the New England prep school circuit. Like Song at the draft, Ying and Zhong had a TV crew following them around at BioSteel camp. And it wasn't some fly-by-night documentary crew; they came from CCTV, the state broadcaster in China.
It's awesome that China, a nation with 1.3 billion people and a reputation for stepping up in athletics when the Olympics come calling, is getting into hockey in a big way. Ying himself started off skating in Beijing shopping malls and has seen huge strides back home when he goes for visits.
“It started out with eight or nine teams maybe, less than 200 players," he said. "Now there are well over 200 teams and 4,000 players. I didn’t even recognize the scene it had grown so much. It’s something I’m really proud of.”
And keep in mind that Ying left when he was nine – so it's been less than a decade. The potential in China is very exciting to consider, but I also have to remind myself how nascent it is. The Chinese men will still likely get annihilated at the Olympics and hopefully by that time, enough interest will have already been gathered in the sport that the locals don't get discouraged.
After all, Canada beat Sweden 22-0 at the 1924 Olympics and eventually the Tre Kronor became a hockey power, too. The only difference, really, is that China must do so during an age where information travels in milliseconds and spans the globe.
Will Song and Ying be on that team? And are they the beginning of a revolution that will see a Chinese player go in the first round of the NHL draft some day? These are questions that take time and for the sake of the players themselves, hopefully they are given the chance to develop without the hype surrounding their birth country engulfing them.