The Stanley Cup, photographed on the Great Wall, is the most iconic trophy in North American sports. Photo: Courtesy of the NHL

Greater Bay Ice Hockey Championships | Shenzhen, China | May 2-11

Hyperbole aside, there is simply nothing in sports like playoff hockey. Crisp and riveting, it comes at you in a relentless binge of blinding and breathless action during a two-month war of attrition before finally crowning an exhausted yet joyous champion in mid-June whose reward is raising the singular, most iconic trophy in North American sports – the Stanley Cup.

It’s that simple. In fact, it’s so simple that the Cup itself has become an oversized personality whose presence inspires mass hysteria even among those who have no idea what hockey is.

Last September, the Cup made its first visit to China in conjunction with the two-game NHL exhibition series in Beijing and Shenzhen between the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames. But the Cup may have been a bigger draw than the games as it toured everywhere from the Great Wall of China to Hong Kong’s dazzling harbor.

The Cup is back in North America now and will be hoisted by a new pair of hands after the defending champion Washington Capitals were knocked out last week in the opening round of the NHL playoffs. However, the spirit of the Stanley Cup will remain in China when the puck is dropped at the Greater Bay Ice Hockey Championships this week at the Ice Palace Ice Rink in Mission Hills mall.

The first weekend features 12 youth teams from across the region competing in three different categories, under eight, under ten and under 12 age group. The big boys come out to play the following weekend when 12 teams split between the International competitive group, international recreational group and Asian competitive group take to the ice.

There are now close to 5,000 registered youth players in China, a number that is lower than infinitesimal in a country of 1.4 billion people. But hockey was never supposed to touch the massive participation numbers of sports like soccer and basketball on the mainland for a simple reason: money.

From space-age ice skates to composite sticks and Robocop equipment, it costs upwards of US$1,000 to kit out a player and that’s even before paying the exorbitant fees to rent ice in one of the country’s rare arenas.

For Chinese millennials, ice hockey has become a cool and exclusive sport right up there with skiing in Japan, golf club membership and recklessly driving the family Porsche. But for Chinese sporting authorities, growth of the game is now a top priority with the 2022 Winter Olympics’ in Beijing less than three years away.

In 2016, the government announced that it would spend $250 billion to totally upgrade and develop winter sports infrastructures and athletes all of it in the wildly ambitious hopes of being a dominant force at the 2022 Winter Games.

“China spends big money setting up the stage for the Winter Olympics,” ski coach Liu Bo told Reuters last year, “and the performers are all foreign. President Xi [Jinping] will not allow this to happen. We have to be the leading actor in 2022.”

While Chinese Xi continues to completely redefine the “control freak” genre, willing his country to Olympic medals in Alpine disciplines and ice hockey by 2022 would easily be his greatest achievement and most enduring legacy.

Still, it has to start somewhere and southern China hockey fans will be treated to a puckish feast during the next few weeks that will also include a four-game exhibition series between the China Ice Hockey League (CIHL) all-stars and the Yokohama Grits out of Tokyo.

The CIHL is a Hong Kong-based, four-team league featuring a number of international players with high-end college and junior experience, while the Grits also boast a number of top Japanese and international players.

It should be an unrivaled display of high-end hockey around these parts and hopefully developing Chinese players will be dutifully taking notes because baby steps, and baby skating strides, are unacceptable in a country in a hurry.

Maekyung Open Golf Championship | Seongnam, South Korea | May 2-5

It would be very easy to give some love to this week’s Volvo China Open at Beijing’s Topwin Golf club.  Co-sanctioned by the European and Asian tour, $3 million in prize money is on the line at one of the continents top tournament.

But for some reason, the Asian tour will be involved in two tournaments this week when they also co-host with the Korean tour the 38th GS Caltex Maekyung Open Golf Championship at the Nam-Seoul Country club, an hour south of the capital.

Considering the massive impact South Korean women have had on the international golf stage, their Korean male counterparts have to be feeling understandably slighted. However, the only Asian male golfer to win a major championship is still Yang Yong-eun when he outdueled no less than Tiger Woods to win the 2009 US PGA Championship.

KJ Choi, 48, spent 40 weeks in the world’s top ten rankings and also won the coveted 2011 Players Championship, a feat repeated by countrymen Kim Si-woo in 2017. Still, there are currently 14 Korean women in the world’s top 30 while Kim, at number 54, and Byeon Hyun-am at 56 are the only two Korean men ranked in the top 100.

Nonetheless, despite the Maekyung Open offering a third of the prize money as the Volvo Open, it is one of the oldest golf tournaments in the country and will feature native son Park Sang-hyun defending his 2018 title.

Tim Noonan is a writer based in Bangkok and Toyko, covering sports and culture. Follow him on twitter @T_NoonanEast

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