Mark Simon's job title on LinkedIn couldn't be more literal: Hockey Guy in China. The Chinese aren't exactly known for their hockey prowess—their men's team is currently ranked 37th in the world by the International Ice Hockey Federation, just above New Zealand and just below Australia—and so it's actually not inconceivable that Simon might be the only hockey guy in China.
That Simon is not the lone hockey guy in China has a lot to do with his own efforts to grow the game in the People's Republic. Simon played hockey at a decent level in Canada—CEGEP, which is a kind of post-high school, pre-college system—but admits he wasn't good enough to secure an NCAA scholarship or an invite to a team in one of Canada's major junior leagues.
Instead of pursuing a dream that seemed impossible, Simon began working for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. He started coaching around the same time, skippering a girl's team in Mount Royal, the Montreal neighborhood where he grew up.
Eventually, Simon says, he just got a little bored with his life. When he was 27, Simon left his banking job in Montreal and moved to Beijing with his then-girlfriend to teach English. He only planned on staying for a year; today, he has been living in China for more than a decade.
Simon currently works in what he describes as a consulting capacity for Kunlun Red Star, a Beijing-based team in the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League. Despite being on the verge of qualifying for the playoffs in their inaugural season, Red Star currently are having difficulty filling their 15,000 capacity arena—which Simon refers to as the House that Marbury Built—with much else than the occasional knitting granny who knows nothing about hockey. Part of that, Simon says, is because the arena is in an inaccessible part of town.
The other part? Few people in China know about, much less care about, hockey.
Beijing is hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics. One of the reasons Kunlun Red Star was born was to give Chinese hockey some legitimacy leading up to the tournament, and ideally, to aid in the development of Chinese players. As it stands, Red Star only boasts three native Chinese players on its roster. None of them skate significant minutes. If China wants to compete on its home ice in 2022, that will have to change.
Famed Chinese actor-director turned hockey commentator Da Ying, whose son Rudi Ying plays center for Kunlun Red Star and was the first-ever Chinese player to sign with a KHL team, believes the work Simon is doing is crucial to China's success in hockey.
"Mark has been helping Chinese hockey ever since he arrived ten some years ago, Ying Da told me through a popular Chinese messaging app called WeChat. "From youth hockey to men's leagues. Coaching the young kids, refereeing amateur games, organizing tournaments, marketing pro hockey ... I'd like to say thank you to Mark Simon. He's going to have his own page in the Chinese hockey history book."
Simon's consulting work for Red Star includes everything from marketing to helping them find the best equipment and apparel suppliers to managing foreign media contacts to setting up players with doctors. In fact, he has enough hockey work in China that it has become his sole source of income.
After arriving in Beijing, Simon quickly found and began to play in a beer league made up largely of expats—Canadians, Americans, Russians, Swedes, Finns, and Germans, he says. But not many Chinese.
Through one of his beer league connections, Simon got involved with a youth club called Imperial Guard. Suddenly, he was part of the system, and convinced that he could make it work better. Simon says his Chinese language skills aren't perfect—80 percent fluency, by his estimate—but that his "hockey Chinese" is "more or less perfect."
That came in handy once Simon began coaching. "I met a guy—a guy who's still a good friend of mine today—and he was helping out as an assistant coach with one of the clubs here," he says. "And I said I wanted to get involved with coaching and with kid's hockey, and he told me one of the coaches was leaving and that I could try it out. I saw how it was being run, and I just thought, 'I love this, and I think I could do it better.' And then, yea, I took that club over—but not in a bad way. I put tons of time into it—and it was kind of like a dream come true, that I could be involved with hockey in China."
According to Simon, there were only 60 or 70 kids playing hockey in Beijing when he arrived. Now, the IIHF says there are more than 1100 hockey players registered in China. That number is paltry when you consider the country's total population is 1.35 billion. But it's progress. The biggest factor stunting further growth, Simon says, is that kids stop playing puck in China around age 13 or 14. At that point, there's nowhere else for them to go.
"There's no system in place," he says.
Some of the better players in the Chinese youth pipeline move to Canada or the United States and play juniors or prep school hockey—for example, Andong "Misha" Song, who played prep school hockey at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, became the first Chinese0born player drafted into the NHL when the New York Islanders took him with the 172nd pick in the 2015 entry draft. "A draft pick shows this whole thing is possible," Simon says. "The pick was out of left field, but it was huge for morale."
But the Misha Songs of the world are few and far between. As for the others? They often end up playing in beer leagues—not exactly the best way to develop one's skill set. Simon hopes the calculus will change.
"I'm optimistic if there's serious change in how this all happens at the top of the Chinese Hockey Association," he says. "If not, then no, I'm not optimistic at all."
Canadians don't usually praise American hockey (Why would they?). But Simon says that the American system could serve as a valuable model for China.
"The reason American hockey has become so good over the years is because of the college system and the prep school system," he said. "That model has really sold a lot of people, because people have seen that you can play hockey at the highest level and still go to school and get your education."
Simon thinks that part of the problem with the development of youth players in China—and therefore the Chinese system as a whole—is that players are told from a young age that they're going to be one thing and one thing only. Their fates are sealed in early adolescence.
"Kids get placed in these athlete training professional facilities at a very young age," says Simon. "So most of them don't end up getting educated very well. They get placed in these programs at 12, 13, 14, 15—anywhere around there—and they're told, basically, 'OK, now you're a pro hockey player. You're in the national system, and we're going to develop you into a hockey player from now on, and you're not going to learn about anything else.'"
For China to compete on the world stage, Simon thinks the country will need better coaches, too. To hear him explain it, the coaching deficit in China sounds an awful lot like the coaching deficits common in many small towns across America. Ex-high school star in podunk town in northern New Hampshire thinks he's qualified to instruct the kids how to take faceoffs because he once scored a hat trick against the rival school 27 years ago, but really he knows nothing about the theory of the game and is just there to attempt—in vain—to re-live his glory days.
"Most of these guys that come down from Heilongjiang province [Editor's note: Heilongjiang province—which is in the north of China—is traditionally where the majority of hockey in China has been played.], they're just players," says Simon. "But in their heads, that automatically makes them good coaches.
"That's a big gap right there. And then it's just this vicious cycle. Guys grow up, they play, they're done. And that's the cycle I want to try to break."
Simon doesn't have an official relationship with the CHA, but he says he's not opposed to working with the powers that be if they're willing to listen. "I just want to get it done," he says. "So if it's with the people who are there now, and they're open to listening and trying to do thing differently, that's great. And if they're not, I think we need to get some people in there who have an openness to look at a different way of doing things."
On whether he thinks all of this can happen in five years—in time for China to be competitive at the 2022 Olympics—Simon is equal parts hopeful and severe.
"I think it can," he says. "It has to."
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