In a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, Professor Emeritus Glen Norcliffe examines the role Canada has played as China develops its professional hockey teams in the run up to the 2022 Winter Olympic Games to be held in and around Beijing. Geography masters candidate, Phillip Sarrazin is research assistant for the project. For the purposes of this research, professional sport is viewed as an economic sector, and hockey as a sub-sector. The rising commodification of hockey, particularly in North America and Europe, has been accompanied by new and expanding international hockey leagues, more international competitions, exhibition games and team tours, intensive scouting and recruiting of foreign players, larger stadia, increasing media coverage and mounting importance of team branding. This is buttressed by a strategic coupling with media. As older economic sectors have declined, the process of creative destruction has been accompanied by the growth of new economic sectors and notably sport, much of which previously formed part of the community sector as an unremunerated “amateur/nonprofit” activity.
Since China’s bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in and around Beijing was accepted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Kuala Lumpur in 2015, China has invested substantial funds to raise the skills of Chinese athletes in winter sports, including hockey, and by building hockey infrastructure.
"The project as a whole can be viewed as a geopolitical exercise, using sport as a form of soft power and a way of asserting international standing," says Norcliffe. "Canadians have helped China develop hockey as team members of professional teams, as coaches, as hosts when Chinese teams visit Canada for demonstration games, helping design the numerous ice hockey arenas being constructed in northern China, and as referees and trainers of referees. Some Chinese Canadians as well as some Chinese hockey players have attended hockey’s High Performance Training Centers in Canada for periods of intensive (and costly) training", he adds.
Although hockey is a relatively new sport to China, there is already a franchise, the Kunlun Red Star co-located in Beijing and Shanghai, a member of the Kontinental Hockey League based in Russia. In 2021, 8 of 25 players on Red Star’s roster identified as Canadian (3 are of Chinese ancestry). Previously, several Chinese franchises (also with some Canadian players) have been affiliated with the smaller Asia League Ice Hockey (ALIH), which has member teams in Japan, Russia and South Korea. At least 24 former NHL players have played in ALIH teams, many have had Canadian coaches, and they scout teams for players, especially Canadians with Chinese ancestry who may be recruited and if needed granted dual citizenship so that they can play for China’s national teams in various competitions.
China’s three northern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning plus the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region experience winters comparable to Canada, and have a population of over 130 million. The Communist Party of China plans a major expansion of winter sports in this large region, creating a winter playground serving China’s growing middle class as well as tourists from abroad. Olympic organizers anticipate that China’s winter sports industry, including hockey, will grow in the post-Olympics period. This complements China’s recent effort to promote more exercise for youths.
Global player production networks sustain China’s hockey teams and franchises. Player's bodies become a site of accumulation as intensive year-round training leads to team success and adds value to a team/franchise while extracting maximum rent from athlete’s bodies. Player’s careers at elite levels are relatively short, and players are frequently traded from team to team, so a steady supply of replacement players is needed. Interaction between Chinese and Canadian hockey is valorized by the exchange of substantial salaries for knowledge about hockey, both codified knowledge but especially tacit knowledge that is gained mainly by playing the game and training with more experienced and knowledgeable players. The development of a competitive hockey team has become a national project, with China adopting Canada as their main trading partner in a program of skill acquisition. This has resulted in the creation of Sino-Canadian player production networks, geared to strengthening Chinese teams.
Glen Norcliffe is professor emeritus in Geography at York University. His research is focused on industry, trade and development, framed in a cultural political economy perspective. His research in China has examined the global production networks that connect makers in China with consumers elsewhere. He has worked with Chinese researchers on the Chinese bicycle industry and its trade with Canada. Subsequently he worked with Chinese and British researchers on the rise of the laptop computer industry in Chongqing and its global supply networks. His current research explores the global player production networks whereby Canadian hockey players and institutions are building hockey skills in China. Norcliffe has also worked on technology issues in China, particularly the role of low-tech delivery tricycles in Beijing, and on the mobilities resulting from the displacement of bicycle culture by automobility. He is the author of the book Critical Geographies of Cycling: History, Political Economy and Culture (2015).