Hockey alive and well in Hong Kong as Canadians export their sport

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Where there are Canadians, there is hockey.

Even amid the commercial bustle of Hong Kong.

A four-team league of Canadian ex-pats, some local Chinese and others from around the world wound up play this week with the South China Sharks downing the Kowloon Warriors 5-2.

All four teams in the CIHL, including the Macau Aces and Hong Kong Tycoons, play late Saturday nights in the same rink, the Mega Ice, which is on the 10th floor of the MegaBox mall. It's the only full size rink in the city of eight million, and the ice rents for $1,000 an hour.

"It's a lot of fun," said Ottawa native Greg Smyth, a Warriors forward who led the league in scoring with 46 points in 15 regular season games. "There are more and more good hockey players coming to Hong Kong."

Naturally, the league is sponsored by a Canadian company: the Royal Bank, through its RBC Play Hockey program.

Leagues have sprung up in many unexpected places, including the Middle East, where there are players from Canada and other hockey-playing countries working for international companies.

Smyth moved to Hong Kong a decade ago after graduating from Halifax's Dalhousie University and found the sport doing surprisingly well.

There are about 300,000 people with Canadian passports in the city, most of them Chinese who have either gone to university in Canada or lived there and then went back to Hong Kong.

Some brought the hockey bug back with them.

Smyth, who has an Internet consulting business, figures the level of play in the CIHL is like junior B in Canada.

"You've got about 20 players who have played at university or junior or minor pro," he said. "The skill level is reasonably good."

About 30 per cent are Chinese, including members of the Hong Kong national team. The city has its own membership in the International Ice Hockey Federation, separate from China.

"They do quite well," added Smyth. "Lots have good skills. They're not that physical, but some have good size."

He said there are about 1,000 kids in hockey programs in the city, with the number growing each year.

The CIHL plays full-contact, but fighting is banned. The teams play three 12-minute periods of stop time.

Smyth said games are well-attended, as RBC gives out tickets to local schools, while other fans drop in from the mall.

RBC sees involvement in the league, which is in its second year, as a way to reach Hong Kong natives with ties to Canada and to develop hockey.

It sponsors two young players per year to go to Hong Kong to play in the league and help develop coaching and training, while also getting work experience at local companies.

Andrew Turczniak, CEO of RBC's Asia office, says the bank hopes to expand the program in future, adding that getting school children and their teachers out to games helps raise awareness of the sport.

"We go to schools and allocate 30 or 40 tickets per school that teachers can give out," said Turczniak. "A lot have never seen hockey before.

"We thought it would be a fantastic way to develop youth participation in hockey and a way to expand our Play Hockey program. It's exciting. It's exporting Canadian culture, and Canadian niceness. Canadians are well though-of in the region."