Members of the Beijing Cubs, a team of 7- to 10-year-old hockey players from China, aim to improve their skills at a Baltimore-area camp.


At the Ice World hockey rink in Abingdon, the Beijing Cubs were making a comeback against the Baltimore Stars, much to the delight of the half-dozen Chinese parents jumping and hollering in the bleachers.

"Step on the gas! Step on the gas!" they chanted in Chinese as their pre-adolescent sons advanced the puck against the favored home team from Baltimore.

The Beijing Cubs, ages 7 to 10 - who lost the game, 6-4 - are in Harford County this week for the sole purpose of improving their hockey skills. They hope to take some new moves back home to China, where many of their friends have never seen a professional hockey game or heard of Wayne Gretzky.

The Cubs are attending a camp sponsored by Baltimore Youth Hockey, which has members in Baltimore City and in Baltimore and Harford counties. They will play a series of games against the Stars and work on skills and conditioning.

The Cubs' visit - and taste of competitive North American hockey - was prompted by the experience of 8-year-old Bob Xu, who attended the camp last year while visiting family in Prince George's County. This year he brought 11 of his teammates from China.

"Hockey is a very new sport in China," said Bob's cousin, Mimi Li, who lives in Greenbelt.

The Beijing Cubs, who started two years ago, are among about a half-dozen youth teams in Beijing, said Mimi Li. Like U.S. clubs, many youth clubs in China charge players to play.

But in China, the cost can be prohibitive for many families. One youth league in the northern city of Harbin charges about $100 a year, which is the equivalent of a month's salary for the average worker, wrote Mike Milbury, the general manger of the NHL's New York Islanders, in a recent article.

Hockey also has to compete in China with more popular established sports such as soccer and table tennis - and with the increased popularity of basketball, especially since the emergence of NBA star Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets.

Catching on in cities

Still, the sport is catching on in big cities such as Beijing and Harbin, said hockey mom Ning Li, who aimed a camcorder at her 8-year-old son Lingyu Hung at the Abingdon rink on a recent afternoon.

Lingyu laced up his first pair of skates at age 4, after seeing hockey players practicing at a Beijing mall. Two years later, he picked up his first stick.

"Then he fell in love with this sport," said Ning Li, who works in human resources for a British company in Beijing.

Every Friday and Sunday, she drives her son an hour to his practices at the Capital Stadium in Beijing, where the team shares ice time with the national women's hockey team.

She said she is all too familiar with the financial sacrifice needed to keep her son playing. Ning Li estimates she paid between $600 and $700 for her son's pads, helmet and stick, which she ordered from Hong Kong. She even bought her son a Wayne Gretzky figurine for $3 on eBay.

'You spend a lot'

An added complication is the fact that most sporting goods shops in Beijing do not carry hockey equipment, some of the Beijing Cubs' parents say. Eight-year-old Tianyao Peng's parents bought equipment from Toronto, where he has an aunt.

"You spend a lot," said the aunt, Susan Yao. She added that most youth hockey players in China come from well-to-do families - she and her husband own a business that produces bed linens.

On the ice, the Chinese and American players' different backgrounds seemed to melt away as the youngsters met at the face-off circle and the referee dropped the puck between them. Though the Americans won the game, the Cubs will have shots at redemption today and tomorrow.

Mike Shramek, who runs the Baltimore Youth Hockey camp, said the Beijing children are the first foreign players to attend his summer camp.

"They're very aggressive," Shramek said. "I think the biggest difference is the kids in the United States seem to know the game a little better. But skill-wise, they're up there."

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