Saturday, February 27, 2010
In 1974, while Canada was embroiled in the second of a pair of intense Summit Series against the Soviet Union, the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds travelled to China on a national tour of their own, in the style of the many Soviet teams that would tour Canada during the 1970s and '80s.
Playing against a variety of club teams across communist China, the Thunderbirds would encounter a very different atmosphere than that confronted by Canada's teams playing in the Soviet Union. While Canadian players touring the Soviet Union were subjected to late night phone calls and stolen steak, Canadian players touring China were treated to friendship ceremonies and tours of hydroelectric dams.
In the years since the height of the Canada-Soviet rivalry in the 1980s, Soviet hockey became known for the intensity of their training regimens. Originally designed by Anatoli Tarasov and later obsessively perfected by Viktor Tikhonov, Soviet hockey players would be isolated from the outside world, and forced to live around their training schedules.
During the 1970s, the Chinese followed a training regimen even more intense than the Soviet schedule, in some cases being allowed a mere five days' break every two years.
But while the Soviet Union had fewer than 100 artificial ice rinks by the 1990s, China started even further behind, and the state of their hockey in the 1970s -- despite their emulation of Soviet methods -- clearly shows it.
Today, Chinese hockey has come a long way. In 2008, the same year that China hosted the World Women's Hockey Championships, the Chinese National Women's team managed to post a win over the traditionally-dominant University of Alberta Pandas. (In 2003, the tournament was scheduled to be held in Beijing, but was cancelled due to SARS.)
Thunderbirds in China is a stark reminder of the diplomatic power of sport, and a reminder that despite the euphoria of the Canadian wins over the Soviet Union in the 72 Summit Series, and in the 76, 84 and 87 Canada Cups, the greatest benefits of Canada's athetlic competitions with its adversaries have always been diplomatic benefits. (The famed 1987 punch-up in Piestany being a clear exemption.)