If you look at the roster of the Chinese Taipei national men’s ice hockey team, you can tell that not many of them are natural hockey players. In Taiwan, hockey is an exotic game, the people who play it drawn in by quixotic personal motives and accidents of life. It doesn’t, generally speaking, draw the best athletes in the country, and the roster reflects that. It’s full of hastily promoted teenagers and overage defensemen. The typical player is something like 5’7”, 160. You don’t even need to see them play to know that this is not an especially competitive hockey team on the global scale.
But then there’s Eric Shen. Eric Shen is a hockey player, in the sense that when hockey people see him, they go, man, that’s a player. 6’4” and 240 lbs, he’s big and solid and strong, strong on his skates, strong on the puck, with a wristshot that comes in hard and low and lethal from any distance, tougher then most men’s slapshots. A surprisingly fluid skater for his size, the sort who never looks like he’s working too hard but invariably gets where he wants to go a step before the opponent. Legs like tree trunks. “If I’d had legs like Eric, I coulda made the NHL,” a friend once said, ruefully, into his beer, and I believe that. I’ve never seen anyone in non-professional hockey who had the physical gifts Eric Shen had.
He had other advantages too. He was born into a hockey family- yes, Taiwan has hockey families. His elder brother, Andy Shen, was a flashy forward and a bit of a local star in his own right. His dad made sure the boys had access to every possible ice time, even the ones at 1 AM on school nights. His mom was so active in the program she received an prize from the Ice Sports Federation for her efforts- literally an award-winning hockey mom. Eric was a member of the most successful ice hockey club in the country. He always had the best equipment. He had heaps of natural talent and every advantage a hockey player can possibly get in Taiwan.
In North America, he couldn’t even crack the fourth line on an ECHL team. That’s how hard it is to get to the NHL from a non-hockey country.
When Anze Kopitar was ten, he wrote a book. I’m assuming it was not a real book, rather something hand-written on notebook paper and folded halfwise into a folio, but the anecdote doesn’t specify. Anze’s book was called Secret Dreams of Hockey Player Miha. It was about a ten-year-old Slovenian boy who wanted more than anything to play in the NHL. When his grandmother read it- although she fully grasped the obvious, childlike allegory- she wrote in the margin this noncommittal sentence: “Hockey player Miha has very high dreams.”
If this was a movie, Anze’s grandma would doubtless have told him that he could do anything if he put his mind to it, that anyone can make the NHL if they try hard enough. But in real life, she didn’t. Because in real life, making the NHL is not an act of pure will. It takes a lot of talent, a lot of luck, a lot of social support, and a lot of opportunities. And, in an often overlooked detail, it usually requires being born in one of the top nine or ten hockey countries. Slovenia is not one of them. It is a very, very, very long way from being a ten-year-old boy in Jesenice- even an extremely talented ten-year-old boy from a hockey-mad family- to the NHL. Long enough to give even a grandmother reasons for skepticism.
Slovenia is a far better hockey country than Taiwan, of course. The major difference is the success of the national programs. Slovenia’s men’s team is currently ranked 18th in the world, good for Division I play with the occasional, and usually fruitless, promotion to the top tier. Mostly, Slovenia plays against the likes of Great Britain, Japan, Hungary, the Ukraine. It usually wins, too, but not by so much as you’d think. In their most recent tournament, on their way to promotion, the Slovenians beat the British 3-2 and the Japanese 4-2. In contrast, the Chinese Taipei men’s team is unranked, but on the basis of recent Challenge Cup of Asia performances and the record of the U18 teams, it’s safe to say they could beat Mongolia easily and the UAE with difficulty, which would put them somewhere around 47th in the world.
But the hockey differences are not quite as vast as the rankings suggest. According to IIHF data (which is occasionally erroneous, but all we have to go with for now), Slovenia has 943 registered ice hockey players to Taiwan’s 848, with 155 and 142 adult males respectively. Slovenia has eight indoor rinks; Taiwan has two. A country’s ability to develop elite players rests very heavily on two things: the extent and variety of competition it can provide, and the amount of ice time available. In both cases, Slovenia is more advantaged than Taiwan, but nowhere near the level of the top tier hockey countries. As far as the opportunities for the development of great players go, it is a very different world than Canada.
Canadians love to credit their own players with extraordinary character, describing their hard trek along the difficult path to stardom as if it took only slightly less courage, fortitude, and determination than climbing Everest sans sherpas. While it certainly takes a lot of dedication to become an NHL player no matter what one’s background, what these narratives hide is that if anything it is easier to become an elite hockey star in Canada than almost anywhere else in the world. Hockey, more than most sports, requires a lot of family and community elements to forge great players. It requires rinks that are built and maintained at town expense, it requires trained coaching, it requires frequent and intense competition, it requires oodles of money for gear and ice, it requires a massive commitment of time and transport from adults.
Canada gives all of these things to all its little hockey players. The society is designed to make hockey as easy and accessible as possible to everyone, and moreover, the whole culture is always on the alert for flashes of talent. The best Canadian kids are identified early and virtually shoved down the path to greatness. They’re promoted to the most competitive teams, given the best coaching, stage managed by parents dreaming of NHL glory. They’re given the opportunity to travel to innumerable tournaments, participate in all manner of summer camps. They’re sent to power-skating lessons and dedicated hockey schools. If their confidence or desire should falter, there is an entire culture’s worth of encouragement and support to lift them back on their feet.
Despite the myth of the preternaturally focused, driven, hockey-obsessive Good Canadian Boy, Canada actually conspires to make it rather easy for the less focused, less driven, less obsessive talents to go far. For a kid with hockey gifts in a hockey-mad society, the path that goes towards the NHL is sometimes the path of least resistance. Most of the ambivalent will fall off before they get to the Show, but it is not unheard of for a Canadian kid with a questionable work ethic to go high in the draft. It is not unheard of for Canada to produce NHL-caliber players who do not eat, sleep, and breathe hockey.
There are kids with hockey gifts born all over the world. If Eric Shen had been born in Vancouver, with those enormous thighs and that thrilling wrister, he’d have been drowned in hockey from puberty on. Somewhere in Peru there’s probably a guy with a butt that puts Crosby’s to shame, who could skate like the wind if only he’d ever seen a pair of skates. Most of the hockey talent in the world is simply born too poor and too far away from the game’s centers of power to ever be developed. Slovenia is about as far on the periphery as one can get and still have even the slightest chance of making it, even with the deepest passion and the hardest work ethic.
But there is no coasting to the NHL from Slovenia. In order to make little to hockey player Miha’s dreams come true, Anze Kopitar had to internalize everything that Canada externalizes. He had to maintain the kind of training regimen on his own that in Canada would be enforced by teams and parents. He had to prioritize hockey practice over socializing when none of his peers were taking the same path. He had to do his own video review sessions, going over tapes of his idols again and again and again. And, ultimately, he had to leave his country at 16 to go play in Sweden in order to find the level of competition he needed to get better.
Anze Kopitar learned five languages and went alone as a teenager to a completely different country in order to get good enough to make the NHL and nobody says shit about it except, hey, a Slovenian guy, that’s crazy. Canadian kids get praised for how hard it must have been to go to high school part time and move from Moose Jaw to Calgary.
Read the interviews today and Anze shows almost no traces of the mysterious European stereotype. He speaks fluid, lightly accented English with all the appropriate hockey clichés. In his off-hours, he likes to go to the movies and play video games. He seems every bit the boring, unremarkable, humble, down-to-earth guy we expect to come in from the Manitoban prairies. He’s become an ordinary hockey guy, like any number of his North American teammates. Except it took him far more work to get there.