Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Hockey and George "Ice" Gervin come to Beijing

Posted below is my Sports Talk column for the March That’s Beijing, which is out now. It is the first time I have ever written about hockey. Sometimes when you don't know what you're talking about, it pays to just keep talking. The game was fun. I took Jacob and went with Charles Hutzler, a former WSJ reporter who now works for AP, and his son. We had a good time. Jacob ate about six Kit Kat bars. I had a beer and froze. It took me an hour after leaving to warm up again.

Hanging with Iceman in Beijing was priceless. The first event I wrote about, the big press conference thing, was pretty depressing. They had these Chinese girls dressed up like American cheerleaders. They were really cute, but were gussied up like 11th Ave. whores and their routines were all out of sync. and they have these three kids doing hoops tricks, and they were really lame. I mean so lame, it was comical.

They had this huge event, with a health club hoops court all done up, smoke machines swirling.. there were probably 150 Chinese press there. I was one of a just a few Americans. There was one hoop still standing, and after the cute but pathetic girls did their lame routine to some pounding modern R&B, the guys took some shots, with one throwing down a wobbly, almost-tomohawk slam.

Then the smooth MC with expensive specs came out and introduced the “lineup” just like a starting team… It was the big wigs of this company NuSports that did a really cool, live-feed and stored video website with the NBA… worth looking at despite being all in mandarin at www.nusports.cn.com… It seemed kind of funny to introduce what looked like your office’s IT staff in such a fashion.

Then they introduced NBA in china head mark Fischer, then they all sat down and answered some questions. Yawn… then they cranked up the smoke machines again, and played some Ice Gervin highlights on a huge screen, which then pulled up to reveal… Ice himself, to a huge applause.

He strolled out to the floor, smoke swirling all around him, waving and smiling.. he was so incredibly, freakishly skinny when he played, that after watching the clips of him finger rolling away it is sort of shocking to see a paunchy pot belly in his 6-7 frame. But, hey, he is 54.

I spoke to him afterwards for a bit and a lot more the following day at the AmCham luncheon mentioned and he really seemed to dig it here. He was clearly touched when presented with a traditional style Chinese painting of him, featuring “ICE 44” written down the side… The next day, he asked me if I had seen it so I think his enthusiasm was genuine. He also patted his belly and said, “I told my wife, the food is too good here… I can’t wait to come back again.”



Curious about what a hockey team called the Nordic Vikings was doing stationed in Beijing, I stopped by the new Hosa rink between the 4th and 5th Rind roads last month to check out the team’s final regular season game. The stands were sprinkled with Beijing’s hockey nuts, many of them expats, most of them Canadians. There was also a small but vocal group of Chinese fans, rooting hard. All of them paid the grand sum of nothing for some pretty exciting, if rather frigid, entertainment, as the Vikings lost 4-3 to Oji, Japan.

The Vikings compete in the second-year Asian Hockey League, where they face off against two other Chinese teams (Harbin and Qiqiqihar), primarily made up of National Team members, four squads from Japan and two from Korea. The Vikings originally featured a mix of Scandinavian and Chinese players, but the latter vanished after Christmas, for reasons not completely clear. The hoped–for sponsorships never quite materialized either and it is an open question whether or not the Vikings, owned by a Swedish sports conglomerate, will return for a second go next season.

Beijing’s hockey nuts certainly hope so. Not surprisingly, the fans are largely the same people who play in the new four-team men’s league started this winter and whose kids make out the diehard core of 150 or so youngsters in Sports Beijing’s growing youth hockey program. All of this hockey activity has been greatly boosted by the recent addition of Hosa Rink, which opened this winter and has been like manna from heaven for the city’s diehard ice lovers.

Annick Lambert a self-described “crazy French Canadian hockey freak” who has lived in Beijing for 18 years, is ecstatic about the Vikings’ arrival and is praying for them to return for a second season. “I miss hockey so much and this as close as you can get to an NHL game here,” she says.

How high is the level of play? Mike Parsons, a Canadian coach who just returned from a six-month stint coaching the women’s junior national team in Harbin, relates it to an NHL farm club. The Vikings clearly have a rough road to hoe in the AHL, which itself is far from success for the simple reason that there is not a thriving hockey culture in Asia; not one nation from the continent qualified for the Turin Olympics and only Japan made it in ’04, and that was an automatic host country bid. Though the Chinese women have risen a high as sixth in the world, them en’s team is languishing somewhere around 30th. New York Islanders owner Charles Wang, a Shanghai native, has donated money and equipment and is actively trying to boost the sports status here in his homeland. In the meantime, Hosa is facilitating a welcome flowering of the sport on a small scale here in Beijing.

For more information on the Viking and to se how their Playoff run is going, check www.nordicvikings.com. For info on adult or youth rec hockey, log on to www.beijing-hockey.com or www.sportsbeijing.com.

**

The NBA showed its continually expanding interest in China with a couple of recent events held on consecutive day sin early February. First, they held a joint news conference with new media company NuSports to announce a partnership that is truly, and legitimately exciting. The company is now streaming, for free, webcasts of NBA games, at their site, www.nusports.cn. They will feature 30 regular season and 12 Playoff games as well as 20 classic contests. If your Mandarin isn’t up to snuff, you will have a hard time both navigating the site and understanding the announcers, but if you a re a true hoops head, a visit is well worth the extra effort. I expect to see this concept copied and duplicated in English before long, because it is clearly several steps better than anything the NBA is currently offering in its home market or language.

The day after the splashy announcement, complete with cheerleaders and smoke machines, the NBA and the American Chamber of Commerce hosted a luncheon featuring Dave Cowens and George “Ice” Gervin, two of the sports 50 all-time greatest players. Both retired legends spoke and answered questions from the audience and both seemed genuinely pumped to be in China.

“This is my third time here,” said Gervin, who had been visibly moved the day before by NuSports presentation to him of a traditional style Chinese-style scroll painting featuring his name and likeness. “And it won’t be my last. I can’t believe how far basketball has taken me and how far the league has come. People in China have a phenomenal interest in the sport and it is still just beginning here. I’m sure of that.”