AP PHOTOS: Olympics bring China’s hockey veterans back to the ice

January 24, 2022 GMT

BEIJING (AP) — For decades, Beijing resident Zhou Yunjie kept quiet about his teenage years behind the puck.

That all changed after Beijing won the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, sparking a government-backed boom in enthusiasm for winter sports across the country. The Games are due to start on February 4.

Now the 60-year-old is back on the ice, proudly fitting in with his former teammates for friendly competitions and tales of their time competing for Beijing in the late 1970s.

“For many years I couldn’t talk about ice hockey,” said Zhou, owner of a technology company in the Chinese capital. “Even my family didn’t know… They were so surprised after I went on the ice and showed that I could play hockey.

Zhou is now a regular at Wednesday and Saturday night games at an ice rink in northeast Beijing. The games have become a staple in the lives of hockey veterans who began playing the sport more than 40 years ago as members of a city youth team.

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In the 1970s, they stood out among more than 200 potential hockey players and entered the Shichahai Sports School youth team. The famous academy sits next to Beijing’s system of lakes, which regularly attract winter sports enthusiasts to their inviting frozen surfaces.

The competition was tough, however, and after five years of professional training, they only managed a sixth-place finish in the 1978 national competition. A year later the team disbanded due to lack of funds and the public interest.

The players, mostly aged 17 or 18 at the time, started a new life just as the Chinese economy began to boom.

“Of course we were sad,” said Mei Chunhui, 61, who runs an engineering consulting firm. “We had no idea what we could do after that, but there was nothing we could do about it, so some of us went to college while others got jobs or joined the army.”

The flame of hockey was extinguished and for over 35 years it looked like they would never play again.

Then, on July 31, 2015, Beijing won the right to host the 24th Winter Games, making the city the first to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

Mei was inspired and started calling her old friends to see if they could form a team again.

Starting with just nine members in 2015, the team now boasts over 20 of the 1979 veterans, most in their 60s.

“We just restarted,” Mei said. “We are nostalgic for it (and) we wanted to come back to enjoy the game.”

Appropriately, the team took the year 1979 as the team name.

“Sparked by the Winter Olympics, the government, schools and society have generated enthusiasm for ice hockey,” Zhou said. “It also reawakened our childhood emotions that were lost for many years.”

China says it has achieved its goal of attracting 300 million people to take part in winter sports, a promise it made when bidding for the Winter Games. The Games Organizing Committee says the country now has 654 standard ice rinks and 803 indoor and outdoor ski resorts.

Despite their enthusiasm, the teammates of 1979 feel the years catching up with them. Tactics and teamwork now matter more than raw physical strength and fundamental skills, said Yang Xiaoliu, 62.

Winning or losing matters even less, players say.

“What matters to us is how we enjoy and feel the games,” Zhou said. “It’s how we exchange emotions with each other.”


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