My alarm went off at 7:00 on Saturday morning but instead of getting out of bed, I fired up my phone and found a list of the city’s best flea markets. Google, Facebook, Youtube and thousands of other sites are blocked within China but thankfully there are ways to get around this. Not only did the proxy connection to Google produce a list of flea markets, but there was an ad on the page that caught my eye. I studied the ad for a few seconds before deciding that a trip to the flea markets could wait until next week. Saturday #46 was Hockey Night in Beijing!
According to the ad, the two day celebration of all things hockey featured a Friday game between Team USA and “The World” while the Saturday “feature” would pit Finland and Canada. The game didn’t start until 5:30 but there was a pre-game party and barbecue slated to start at 2:00. The ad also stated: “Tickets available from the Irish volunteer opposite The Lido Hotel 泉发花园北门 香江北路2号.”
This didn’t sound like a big budget event, and to be honest I wasn’t aware of anything other than Olympic hockey in Beijing, but passing up something called Hockey Night in Beijing would be “un-Canadian” and we can’t have that, can we?
I took four different subway lines to The Lido. Sure enough, right across the street from the hotel was an Irish pub with dual signs identifying it as “The Irish Volunteer / Hockey Bar.” The bartender spoke some English but didn’t know much about tickets to the game. She said they were probably sold out. Overhearing that, the bar’s lone patron assured me that I’d be able to buy a ticket at the gate. “Larry from Edmonton” actually spent most of his life in Kitchener but now splits his time between homes in Fort Lauderdale and Shenzhen, China. He appeared to be in his mid-60s so I asked if he had retired to China. Apparently he’s NOT in his mid-60s. And judging by the look he shot me, retirement is the furthest thing from his mind. I quickly changed the subject. “So, how about that Connor McDavid, eh?”
The concierge at The Lido summoned an Uber cab and explained to the driver that I wanted to go to “Hokay Arena Maquanying” which was opposite something called “The Beijing Riviera.” The driver wasn’t too concerned about details and we set out in the direction the concierge had pointed. After an hour and 15 minutes of stop-and-go traffic we pulled up to the guard hut at an exclusive gaited community. The driver got out, opened my door, and suggested that I pay him the pre-negotiated fare of 100 Yuen ($20 CDN) and get the Hell out of his car. It didn’t seem like a neighbourhood where there’d be a hockey arena but it was a nice day and I figured I could walk the rest of the way if I had to.
I figured the best way to ask the guards if there was an arena nearby was to mimic taking a shot with a hockey stick. They stood and stared at me with blank looks on their faces. I took a second imaginary shot, only this time I jumped around and pumped my fist as if I had just scored the Stanley Cup winning goal. It worked. All five guards turned in unison and pointed up the street and to the left.
Ten minutes later I was on the lawn of Hokay Arena Maquanying, beer in hand, and lined up for some Alberta AAA beef. A live band played Tragically Hip and Nickelback covers while kids took shots on a miniature net. I had found a genuine tail-gate party in Beijing.
The band took a break while a gentleman by the name of Daniel Cheng explained the concept of the Teddy Bear Toss for those who don’t follow hockey. Everyone was given a stuffed bear and instructed to toss it onto the ice after the first goal. The bears would then be collected and distributed at a local children’s hospital.
When Daniel stepped down from the stage I took the opportunity to introduce myself. I told him that I’m from Toronto and currently backpacking around the world. He told me that he’s also Canadian and with the Beijing office of the Canadian law firm Bennett-Jones.
I later learned that his title is Managing Director – Asia Pacific, Senior Advisor (China) and Chief Representative (Beijing). Bennett-Jones has 900 lawyers world-wide, including a former deputy prime minister of Canada, a retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and two former Canadian ambassadors to the USA. The firm was started in the 1920s by R. B. Bennett who went on to be Prime Minister in the 30s. Daniel was quick to note that Hockey Night in Beijing is a team effort but several others told me that he’s largely responsible for the 4th edition. He’s obviously quite the organizer as this was a professional show from start to finish.
There are eight teams in the Beijing Ice Hockey League. Most of the 120 BIHL players are expats, many of whom work for the embassies of various hockey playing countries. About 40% are Canadians, 10% American, 10% Russian, and the remainder are a mix of Swedes, Finns, Czechs and Swiss. There’s a lone Irish goaltender and one Greek player.
Every year the Canadians take on the Finns in the season finale. After three editions, the Finns have yet to win a game. The Canadian team is comprised of Beijing-based expats, but word on the street had the Finns so desperate to get a maiden-breaking win that they had flown in several players from Shanghai, including one former NHL draft pick. The Canadians, being good sports and with a much deeper pool of players from which to make a team, didn’t object too strenuously.
There were the customary pre-game introductions and a ceremonial puck drop before the action got underway at 6:00 pm. Within 10 minutes the score was 2-1 for Canada. The largely Canadian crowd was on their feet from the start. It crossed my mind that this might be a blowout as the red and white were very dominant for the entire first period.
As we waited for the second period to get underway, Daniel asked if I had met the Ambassador. I had not, I replied. I expected him to say, “Well, too bad, but if you look up at the private boxes and don’t attract the attention of the CSIS agents you might be able to catch a glimpse of him.” Instead he said, “Follow me; I’ll introduce you.”
If you ask me, anyone named “Guy Saint-Jacques” is qualified to be a Canadian Ambassador on name alone, but in this case we are represented by a career diplomat, fluent in English, French and Mandarin, who previously served as Canada’s Chief Negotiator and Ambassador for Climate Change. The Ambassador told me that he was previously “Canada’s #2 man” in Hong Kong, Kinshasa, Washington and London. Besides the embassy in Beijing, Canada has consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing and six trade offices in Shenyang, Chengdu, Wuhan, Nanjing, Shenzhen and Qingdao.
I’m pleased to report that our top diplomat in Beijing is one helluva nice guy, very down to earth and seemingly happy to chat with a scruffy stranger for the better part of a period of hockey. And forget about him sitting high up in a private box. The Ambassador and his wife sat on folding chairs placed in the 8-foot wide space behind the Finnish net.
Unfortunately things took a turn for the worse about halfway through the game. Some might say the Canadian team had a meltdown in the second period but as I saw it they faced a re-energized Finnish team and they simply weren’t able to step up their game to the same degree. The Finns played with confidence and soon had a 3-2 lead. Daniel Cheng was despondent.
Late in the third period the score was 5-3 for the Finns and things started to get chippy. I was surprised as this was supposed to be a ‘friendly’ between rec players with a diplomatic image to maintain. At one point the two centres circled each other for a few seconds and looked like they were about to go. They weren’t exactly a modern day Domi and Probert but for a few seconds it was really tense. All of a sudden the gloves came off and the two players lunged at each other.
Instead of landing punches, they threw their arms around each other and hugged. The international love-fest went on for a good 15 seconds. The crowd went wild! (I was charging my iPhone at the time so unfortunately there’s no photo of the game’s most memorable moment.)
After the game I realized that I was a long way from the nearest subway and finding a taxi in a remote part of the city might be an issue. Luckily I had some spare beer tickets and the bar was still open so I bought tallboys for three guys who were standing near me and looking a little dry. They introduced themselves as “The Three Adams.” Before long they asked me to join them on a chartered bus that was headed to the Irish Volunteer / Hockey Bar for the official after-party. Another crisis averted, Canadian style. #PraiseBeer
Adam Harrold (left) is from Orangeville, ON, while Adam (centre) is from Chatham, ON and Adam (right) is from Miramichi, NB. All three teach at the Canadian International School of Beijing. The privately owned school’s curriculum is set by the New Brunswick Department of Education and many of the teachers are recruited from NB.
We made it back to the Hockey Bar around 10:00 and most of the players showed up around midnight. Nobody left before 2:00 and in fact it was still an overflow crowd well past 4:00 a.m. Do I have to explain how I know that? Let’s just say that Saturday #46 was a lot more fun than Sunday #46.