Remembering the China Sharks
What if I told San Jose and Worcester Sharks fans there was a forgotten team that played over in “The Middle Kingdom?” That a former San Jose goaltender would pass on his knowledge to a new crop of goaltenders while being the team’s number one goaltender? That a legendary agitator would begin his road to a comeback by suiting up in a foreign land? What if I told you that even when you have success, there are those you can’t please?
“What in the world is that?” I said in a confused tone as I gazed up at a Sharks jersey that stood out inside the Sharks Store at then HP Pavilion (now known as SAP Center) on a cold December night in 2008. This wasn’t a regular Sharks jersey or even a throwback. This was a jersey I had never seen before.
As I examined the jersey, I noticed the logo was similar to that of the Cleveland Barons, the Sharks’ former American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate. However, this jersey couldn’t be a Barons jersey because the Barons relocated and became the Worcester Sharks prior to the start of the 2006-07 season. In addition, the sleeves of this jersey had red, which wasn’t a Sharks color, and the Chinese national flag was prominent on the left shoulder.
Finally, I looked at the tag that was dangling out of the sleeve and my eyes nearly popped out like slinkies. “China Sharks?” I said out loud. “Who are the China Sharks?”
CHAPTER 1 – HOCKEY IN CHINA
29 wins combined in 228 games was all the two professional Chinese hockey teams Harbin (relocated to Beijing and renamed Hosa for the 2006-07 season) and Qiqihar (relocated to Changchun and renamed Changchun Fuao for the 2006-07 season) had produced in three years (2004-07) of play in the Asia League Ice Hockey (ALH). Even more disheartening was the fact that most of Hosa and Changchun Fuao’s wins came from playing against each other as games against the four Japanese teams often resulted in double digit blowout losses.
In an attempt to make the Chinese more competitive in the ALH, Hosa and Changchun Fuao were merged into one team prior to the start of the 2007-08 season. Under the management of the Chinese Ice Hockey Association (CIHA), the best players from Hosa and Changchun Fuao were chosen to play for the new team, which would be based in Beijing.
While the newly formed Chinese team had a sponsor in Hosa Sports and an arena at the Beijing Shijixing Sport Center, there was no official team name.
CHAPTER 2 – THE BIRTH OF THE CHINA SHARKS
After nearly two years of work and planning done by former San Jose Sharks color commentator Chris Collins, who took an interest to the athletic market in China after a meeting with a woman who had sports connections in the country, then Sharks President and CEO Greg Jamison made the announcement in Sept. 2007 that San Jose had agreed to send five minor league players (the maximum number of import players allowed at the time under ALH rules) and three coaches to the newly formed Chinese team, as well as lend financial support for the continued development of Chinese Youth Hockey, in exchange for the transfer of team naming rights from Hosa Sports. The team would be known as the China Sharks.
To show they were serious about their ventures into China, San Jose appointed Collins as the China Sharks’ general manager, and sent then Junior Sharks head coach Derek Eisler to be the head coach with Minnesota junior coach Tom Lenox serving as an assistant. Player wise, San Jose sent forwards Keegan McAroy, Kevin Korol, Jason Beeman; defenseman Dan Knapp; and goaltender Zach Sikich; all of whom were North Americans that had either major junior, collegiate or minor league hockey experience.
“The goal is to help them be more competitive,” said Jamison in a Sept. 2007 interview with the Boston Globe. “They’re in the infancy of trying to grow the game over there and we thought we’d like to try to help. It could help grow the game internationally as well as grow the brand of the San Jose Sharks and the National Hockey League.”
As a result of their being one professional Chinese hockey team, the China Sharks were classified by CIHA as the official National Team of China.
CHAPTER 3 – THE INAUGURAL SEASON
The China Sharks kicked off their inaugural season with a 4-1 home win over the Nikko Ice Bucks (one of the four Japanese teams in the ALH) on Sept. 29, 2007. Beeman scored the franchise’s first goal, a power play goal, at 2:19 of the first period to put the Sharks up 1-0. Forward Wang Zhiqiang scored what held up as the game winning goal while Sikich made 38 saves as the Sharks were outshot by the Ice Bucks 39-18 (17-2 in the third period).
Unfortunately for Sharks fans, the team would only win two more games (a 4-3 win over Anyang Halla on Nov. 1 and a 6-5 win over a depleted Nippon Paper Cranes squad in the last game of the season on Jan. 9, 2008) to finish the season 3-27-0 with 10 points. The Sharks were the only team to miss the ALH playoffs.
Even though the Sharks’ final record wasn’t anything to write home about, the record doesn’t tell the whole story of the season. As Simon Currie pointed out in his Jhockey WordPress blog, there was a new competitiveness instilled in this Sharks team that allowed them to keep games respectable (five goals allowed or less) throughout the first half of the season. In fact, the Sharks played in many highly contested one or two goal games, something that was unimaginable from a Chinese team in previous seasons. A main reason for this was Sikich, who gave the Sharks a chance to win despite facing an endless barrage of shots on goal every game, such as the 64 shots he faced in a 4-0 loss to the Seibu Prince Rabbits on Oct. 13, 2007.
Near the halfway point of the season in mid November, Sikich was released after the Sharks acquired goaltender Kelly Guard, who had been with the Binghamton Senators of the AHL the past two seasons. The move ended up backfiring on the Sharks as Guard left the team after making two starts due to living conditions and eventually signed on with the Vienna Capitals of the Austrian Hockey League, aka Erste Bank Eishockey Liga. With Sikich and Guard gone, the Sharks had to rely on domestic goaltenders Yang Yu and Ming Xie for the second half of the season.
Despite their best efforts, the inexperience and lack of fundamentals showed as Yu and Xie surrendered five or more goals in 12 of the Sharks’ final 14 games of the season, punctuated by a 15-3 annihilation at the hands of the Prince Rabbits. Yu finished with 6.00 goals-against average and .818 save percentage while Xie finished with a 7.35 goals-against-average and .806 save percentage.
With the first season completed, several things stood out to Collins. The Sharks needed more bite in the lineup as Beeman, who led the team in scoring with 28 points (16-12-28), accounted for 25-percent of the offense by scoring 16 of the team’s 63 goals. In addition, the Sharks needed an import goalie who would stay the entire season as well as provide some serious goaltending coaching for the domestic goalies, who surrendered 89 of the Sharks’ league high 159 goals over the course of those final 14 games of the season.
CHAPTER 4 – THE OFFSEASON
To spread awareness of their team and improve their hockey skills, several China Sharks players (Chui Zhinan, Liu Henan and Wang Jiang) participated at the 2008 San Jose Sharks rookie camp. On July 19, the trio held a morning practice at Oakland Ice conducted by coach Eisler, and an afternoon skating session with Bay Area youngsters.
Meanwhile, back at ALH headquarters, the league extended the length of the regular season to 36 games and reduced the amount of playoff teams from six to five. Furthermore, the league passed a new rule that allowed the China Sharks to have up to seven import players (the two Korean teams were allowed five import players and the four Japanese teams were allowed two) in an effort to make the games more competitive.
With the China Sharks retaining Beeman, McAroy, Korol and Knapp, Collins filled his import limit by signing 2002 Carolina Hurricanes draftee Adam Taylor; former NHL defenseman Steve McKenna, who would double as a player and an assistant coach after coaching the Australian national team to a gold medal at the 2008 International Ice Hockey Federation Division II World Championships; and former San Jose goaltender Wade Flaherty, who would also serve as the team’s goaltending coach.
“I thought this was a pretty good opportunity, to come over and be part of something right from the beginning,” said Flaherty in a Jan. 2009 interview with Yvonne Zacharias of the Vancouver Sun.
Once it became apparent that the China Sharks would be without the services of McAroy for the 2008-09 season, Collins signed former Harvard standout Kevin Du (pictured above behind coach Eisler), a player Collins wanted on the team for the inaugural season but couldn’t sign due to ALH rules on the amount of import players.
Along with the new faces for the 2008-09 season, the China Sharks got a new look as well as a new home as they were relocated from Beijing to Shanghai, and would play their home games at the brand new Songjiang Stadium, which had a capacity of 6,000.
“It makes sense for our first international franchise to be in Shanghai,” said then Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment (now Sharks Sports and Entertainment) Executive Vice President Charlie Faas in a press release on Sept. 17, 2008. “The city has a reputation of being a cosmopolitan center and has a strong desire and acceptance of new cultural and sporting activities – with the added benefit of an international fan base already familiar with hockey.”
In addition to the on ice changes and relocating, SVSE announced they, not CIHA, would be running the China Sharks and make the decisions regarding coaches, players, etc.
CHAPTER 5 – SWIMMING IN SHANGHAI
After concluding a three week training camp in the northern Chinese city of Suihua, the China Sharks traveled to Japan for their season opening six game road trip, which started with a heartbreaking 4-3 loss to the Ice Bucks on Sept. 25. The road trip turned into a nightmare for the Sharks, who lost all six games by a combined score of 26-8.
With the disastrous road trip behind them, the Sharks returned home to Shanghai for their home opener against the Prince Rabbits. In front of an electric crowd, the Sharks ended their six game losing streak by upsetting the Prince Rabbits 3-1. Beeman scored two goals for the Sharks, both of which were assisted by Taylor, who was named team captain, while Flaherty made 40 saves.
Near the halfway point of the season, the Sharks were 3-12-1, matching their total wins from their inaugural season. Additionally, the team achieved their first ever two game winning streak when they defeated High1 3-2 and 4-3 on back-to-back nights (Nov. 1-2). The Sharks then made national headlines when they signed former National Hockey League (NHL) agitator and four time Stanley Cup champion Claude Lemieux, who was attempting an NHL comeback at age 43 after having last played for EV Zug in the Swiss National League A during the 2003-04 season.
Leaving a front office job with the NHL Phoenix Coyotes to pursue his comeback, Lemieux was put in touch with Collins by Jamison, Faas and San Jose Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson. Sold on the idea, Lemieux agreed to travel over the Pacific for a tryout with the China Sharks.
Lemieux suited up for two games, a back-to-back set against Halla (Nov. 15-16). Even though the China Sharks lost both games (3-2 and 4-2), Lemieux did well as he registered an assist to go along with seven shots on goal and four penalty minutes. On Nov. 25, Lemieux was signed to an AHL contract by Worcester and then a two-way contract by San Jose on Dec. 30. The comeback was made complete when San Jose called up Lemieux on Jan. 19, 2009.
“God Bless Claude and his family for letting him come over as he was and is great,” said Collins in a Oct. 2009 interview with Sharkspage.com. “He is one of the best people I’ve ever known as he is the consummate professional, and like Mac and Flats, gave our team and league a sense of being. I will forever be indebted to my friend Claude, as should all hockey people, as the game needs more talent and character like Claude.”
With Lemieux back in North America, the China Sharks skated into the second half of their season looking to continue their improved play. Despite starting 1-8 in the second half of the season, the team went 3-6 over the course of their final nine games, highlighted by another two game winning streak, to finish 7-25-4 with 23 points overall, doubling their inaugural wins and point totals.
Statistically, Beeman again accounted for 25-percent of the China Sharks’ offense as he scored 15 (fourth best league wide) of the team’s league low 60 goals. Korol led the team in scoring with 29 points, 22 of which were assists (team leading and 15th league wide). Flaherty played in all 36 games (minus 20 minutes) and was named ALH Best Goaltender after finishing with a 3.29 goals-against-average and a league leading .917 save percentage.
Despite missing the playoffs for a second season, the China Sharks did not finish in last place (Ice Bucks had 20 points). Additionally, of their 29 losses, 23 were by three goals or less and 12 of those 23 were by two goals or less.
With an improving team, a solid coaching staff and an enthusiastic home crowd, there was excitement for the China Sharks’ impending third season. Sadly, that season never happened as Collins and Jamison’s long-term, big picture vision of hockey in China was erased in the 2009 offseason.
CHAPTER 6 – SHARK FINNED
Less than a month before the China Sharks were to start their 2009-10 season, eyebrows were raised when IIHF.com posted an article that said former Belarusian national player Andrei Kovalev had been hired by CIHA to coach both the national team and the Chinese team in the Asia League.
Shortly afterwards, CIHA made the announcement that they had severed their affiliation with the San Jose Sharks and that the Chinese team would now be known as the China Dragon, who would split their home games between Harbin and Shanghai. Furthermore, CIHA announced the Dragon would not maximize the seven import slots allotted by the ALH in order to develop domestic talent.
What caused this abrupt shift in direction for Chinese hockey? According to Collins in his Sharkspage.com interview, CIHA and its Jr. ministers wanted everything to remain status quo, which SVSE found unacceptable. As a result, Collins suggested to partners/supervisors Jamison and Mike Lehr that SVSE not go forward with the Chinese in the ALH until CIHA and its associates were removed from the partnership.
“You must understand that the rules in creating the team are set for Jr. ministers and their buddies to keep everyone happy by selecting teams that their (associates) ask them to pick,” said Collins. “Of course, for one season we did not allow this and the team was more successful than it had ever been. This created chaos for the very ‘obstructionist’ in the local northern region, as the game was changed and those responsible for the destruction of the Chinese so called ‘product’ were left out in the cold.”
Since CIHA rechristened the team, the China Dragon have finished in last place every season and have a combined record to date of 1-172-5. The Dragon have not won a game since defeating the Ice Bucks 4-3 in Shanghai on Nov. 28, 2009.
CHAPTER 7 – WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Collins is the General Manager at Lake Tahoe Hockey Club as well as the Managing General Partner at Bay Area Seals Hockey Club. Also, Collins has been a partner-investor in San Jose Asia Sports Entrainment (S.J.A.S.E.) since October 2009.
Coach Eisler currently serves as the head coach for the Stockton Junior Colts Midget hockey team and as an assistant for the Bantam team. Additionally, Eisler co-founded the Bay Area Blazers Hockey Academy with Jerry Hotarek in 2012.
McKenna appeared in 10 games for CSK VVS Samara in the Russian Hockey League during the 2009-10 season before becoming head coach of HC Alleghe in the Elite.A Italian Hockey League, aka Liga Italiana Hockey Su Ghiaccio, later that season. After being Alleghe’s coach for three seasons, McKenna was promoted to General Manager prior to the start of 2012-13 season but left the team in December 2012 as he returned to Canada due to personal reasons.
Beeman returned to North America and spent time in the Central Hockey League (CHL), Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) and ECHL. Beeman last played for the ECHL Ontario Reign during the 2012-13 season.
Taylor finished the 2008-09 season with the Victoria Salmon Kings of the ECHL and re-upped with the team for the 2009-10 season. Taylor last played during the 2010-11 season when he appeared in 33 games for the Edinburgh Capitals of the British Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) before returning to the Salmon Kings for the remainder of the season.
Korol, who played the 2009-10 season with Dunaújvárosi Acélbikák of MOL Liga and appeared in 12 games for the Bentley Generals of the Chinook Hockey League during the 2010-11 season, has been a Player Representative for Titan Sports Management in Calgary since Oct. 2010.
Du is an associate at Axley Brynelson, LLP and has been a student at the University of Wisconsin Law School since Aug. 2010.
While their existence was brief, those involved with the China Sharks will be remembered for having the fortitude to attempt the impossible, all for the love of the game of hockey.
alhockey.com, battleofcali.com, cityweekend.com.cn, flickr.com/photos/deisler, flickr.com/photos/lomofever, flickr.com/photos/willdeshazer, jhockey.wordpress.com, lovehockey.jungem.jp, Shanghaiist.com, themaomix.blogspot.com, vancouversun.com.