The Canadiens' Gift

March 3rd, 2016

The following article about the Montreal Canadiens Alumni Program in China, was originally published on Sports Illustrated China, edition 2016 No. 3-4. This program that took place in Beijing between January 7-17, 2016, was presented by CTC Group Ltd.

Fun Time With The Fans and Players
The Montreal Canadiens Alumni and hockey enthusiasts played an exhibition game on an outdoor ice rink at the National Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest.

“Go on, stop him! Watch, it’s my turn!” He skated to the center of the rink, stole the puck from the opponent and passed it to his teammate. Unfortunately, his teammate was not paying attention and the puck went to the side boards and out of bounds. The fans threw the puck back onto the ice and the game continued.

This was Steve Shutt, a five time Stanley Cup winner, National Hockey League (NHL) Hall of Famer and yes, this was an exhibition game on an outdoor ice rink.

“This is the 4th annual event of the Pond Hokey Tournament that we have organized. I wanted everyone to gather together and experience hockey this way because this is how we grew up playing the game.” Curtis Dracz is the founder of this tournament and named it the Houhai Pond Hockey Tournament because it was first played at Houhai. “The last two winters in Beijing were warm and therefore we had to move the tournament to Shichahai” Dracz told the reporter. “This year we were lucky. Beijing won the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games and that gave us the chance to have this event here at the Bird’s Nest – National Stadium. On top of that, it was very exciting that the Montreal Canadiens Alumni joined us.” Dracz was very excited to be able to put on the skates and had a chance to play against the players he grew up watching.

The Outcome Is Not Important. It Is More About People Hanging Around Together, Playing Hockey, Drinking Beer and Having Fun.

There were 20 teams with players coming from Beijing, Shanghai, Dalian and Hong Kong participating in the Pond Hockey Tournament this year. Most of the participants are Westerners that live in China, and predominately from Canada. “Hockey is about teamwork and you have to find your own team” said Dracz. The popularity of this tournament has grown each year as more people hear about this tournament. Players and their friends would come here to meet new friends and more importantly, to be able to have a great time. Dracz continued to say “At the event, every team would choose their own sets of jerseys and many of them are very colorful and creative, but you know, the outcome is not that important, it’s more about people hanging around together, playing hockey, drinking beer and having fun”.

Dracz has been living in China for 7 years and has met many Canadians in China in recent years. With the announcement that Beijing has successfully won the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, the hockey exchange projects between China and Canada will happen more often. “I know it would be a challenge to promote Ice Hockey in China, but there are lots of kids here that like to play hockey. The reason we chose to hold the tournament at the Bird’s Nest and Houhai is because there are lots of tourists here and they would stop to watch us play hockey. It doesn’t matter if they know what’s happening, and we do not play for the outcome. But when we get their attention and they take a photo with their mobile phones, on their way back home, they may check online, so that they begin to understand the game of hockey. There are actually more people playing hockey in China.”

Along with their manager and two coaches, the four Alumni players came to China and spent 10 days for this trip. The Montreal Canadiens Hockey Club was founded in 1909 and has the longest history than any of the other NHL Original Six teams. They have won 24 Stanley Cups in their 106 years history which is the most in the NHL and any of the four major sports in North America, a record held the record until 1999. They still hold the record in the NHL with five consecutive championships during the 1950’s.

On January 13th, a reception was held at the Canadian Embassy in China for the Montreal Canadiens Alumni. The Canadian Ambassador Mr. Guy Saint-Jacques said “I’m a hockey fan since I was little, just like all the other kids from Quebec. We started to skate as soon as we started to walk! Every Saturday night, my whole family would watch hockey on TV together. As the 2022 Winter Olympic Games will be held in Beijing, more people will start to join winter sports. The Canadian people are longing to share the experience and excitement of winter sports with our Chinese friends.”

The organizer of the Montreal Canadiens Alumni Program in China was CTC Group Ltd. CTC’s Chairman and CEO, Mr. Guy Evon Cloutier said: “Hockey started in Montreal, the rules were settled in Montreal, and the first hockey game was held in Montreal. That’s the reason why Montreal was given the name as the World’s Ice Hockey City. Montreal is also my hometown. The Montreal Canadiens is the best hockey team and I believe they are the best organization to help develop ice hockey in China.”

Mr. Cloutier has been living in China for 10 years and he had this vision for years to bring the Montreal Canadiens to China. The first time he made contact with the Canadiens about this idea to invite them to China was 2 years ago. The ice hockey development in China is an unfamiliar territory to them, and they continually asked questions during these 2 years. “I have been waiting for a chance, I have to say the announcement of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games made this possible. We know the Canadiens are quite busy with their work in North America, but our plan is not just to have them come to China for 10 days, we are looking forward for a long term cooperation.”

1986 Stanley Cup Winner, Gaston Gingras on Coaching Chinese Youth Players.

The four Alumni players Steve Shutt, Gaston Gingras, Patrice Brisebois and Mathieu Dandenault have a combined 3,615 games played in NHL and 10 Stanley Cups between them. In the 10 days in China, they held 4 hockey camps, shared their experience with more than a hundred Chinese youth players. They also had the chance to visit the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and enjoy Chinese food. On the last day of their trip, they participated in the Pond Hockey Tournament with the weather a bit overcast. But still, to the Canadiens, “Every day is a great day to play hockey!” a famous quote from a former NHL coach, the late Bob Johnson.

“When wearing the skates with smiles on their faces, it’s like a celebration. That’s why I have been playing hockey all these years, because it brings happiness to our lives.”

People will easily get involved by the atmosphere – they are not wearing professional jerseys, no equipment or helmet. There were 2 teams that played a game dressed up like dinosaurs and pandas. Some are just resting and sitting on the bench, drinking beer and cheering on the game. They help clean the ice surface, assist with anything required while the children and wives were running around with big smiles.

Shutt said this is how ice hockey should be like. “You know, I’m 63 years old now, it’s interesting whenever I stand on ice, I feel a lot younger. If you have watched today’s event, you will find when people wear the skates, there are smiles on their faces, it’s like a celebration. That’s why I have been playing hockey all these years, because it brings happiness to our lives.”

Although Steve Shutt dedicated almost his whole NHL career to the Montreal Canadiens, he is actually not from Quebec. In a small town outside Toronto, his father taught him the first hockey lesson. “Dad wanted to make us an ice rink in our backyard but our yard wasn’t big enough. The neighbor let us use his. We had a light next to the rink, so that we can play on it day and night.” Putting on all the equipment, having a stick on the shoulder with skates before going out every morning is like a religion to a Canadian boy and Steve Shutt was one of them.

“I have played hockey in Gulding Park for a year until I finally had chance to play in an indoor ice rink, I was so excited. But by that time we can only have indoor training every Saturday.” Steve Shutt was the main force since then. “I have never been the best skater, when I was still a kid, I was actually running on the ice instead of sliding, but when I have the chance to get close to the opponent’s goal, I always manage to score.”

Shutt played 7 games on the North York Youth Team B and scored 10 goals and 17 assists. This excellent performance moved him up to Team A before the Playoffs. By the age of 16, Shutt wanted to join the Toronto Maple Leaf Youth Team A but they relegated him to Team B. Shutt was not happy about that. “I told them I want to play in team A, they told me no, so I said to them if that’s the answer, I prefer to play for the Montreal Canadiens.” Although it was Shutt’s dream to wear the blue and white jersey, he stood by his words.

After a few days, he got a phone call from the team manager Buck Hoare to ask him to come to the club. In the Maple Leaf’s parking lot, Hoare told him, “If you really want to play on Team A, I can’t guarantee whether you have the ice time or just sit on the bench.” Shutt replied, “That’s what I want”. In his second season in Toronto, Shutt played 40 games got 25 goals, and 19 points in 18 games in the playoffs. His youth team got into the playoffs three times out of the 4 years but was not able to win the title. The Maple Leafs Youth team played well in those years, which gave many people some hope. Till today when I’m walking on the streets, people still come to me saying “I used to spent 50 cents every Sunday to watch your game, I remember you!” I miss those days, it was the golden period of youth hockey. Later, many of us went into NHL.”

Shutt was selected in the first round, fourth overall in the NHL Draft by the Canadiens. But that does not translate that he will crack the lineup. “Their team was very stable, as a freshman, I didn’t know if I was going to have the chance to enter the stage. But I did learn a lot. As a star in youth league, the situation was hard for me. It felt like someone pointed to my nose saying, hey kid, go to the media balcony and watch for 2 years. But that also taught me to cherish my job, to understand how difficult it is to play in the NHL. So when I turned to be a star, nobody could take it from my hands.”

In 2015, before China got the right to hold winter Olympic, Song Andong from Beijing was the first Chinese player selected in the NHL Entry draft. Shutt was really happy for China, “The standard of the NHL is very high, it’s not easy to pass the entry draft, this is a big step for China. I can’t say he can surely enter the field, but if not him, the next young Chinese player will, it’s just about time. But you know, I would prefer to see millions of Chinese playing hockey than one Chinese face in NHL. If there are millions of Chinese playing hockey, NHL won’t be a problem anymore.”

Shutt is very positive about the future and shared his experience with us – As a member of the Stanley Cup Champion team in 1973, Shutt only played one game, that made him very disappointed. “I was sitting on the bench watching most of the time, my teammates were doing very well, I was happy for them, but I didn’t really feel like one of them.”

“Unlike now, every club would only replace 1 or 2 player every year, but now is normal to see several to be replaced. Back then, we were really like families, there’s always people to support you. I remember the first 3 years in the Montreal Canadiens, the super star in the team, we were like baby birds under his big wings. He brought us chance and confidence, let us show our talent.” Shutt contributed with 105 points in 1976-1977 season, ranked third in the league, and he got another 8 goals in the playoffs, helping the team to defend the championship. The line-up in that season was named as the second greatest team by ESPN.

Henry Richard won 11 Stanley Cups while Yvan Cournoyer won 10. Shutt explained to us how the Montreal Canadiens built a dynasty in the 70s, “These people were great champions, they were never conceit, never thought they were better than the others, they just did their best on the ice. The core players are always those stars, when they are working hard in the team, others will follow, in such a team, you can never be lazy.”

Firing Resumed
The Montreal Canadiens had a good started to the 2015-2016 season with winning 9 games in a row and a great chance to enter playoff season.

Since the NHL expanded to 30 teams in the 21st century, teams have a difficult time to win and repeat as champions. The last time Montreal Canandiens won Stanley Cup was in 1993. “You know the thing is in NHL today, all the teams are in similar level, the first game is as hard as the last one, you have to always stay in a good condition is enter playoff season. If you ask me whether Montreal Canadiens has the chance to Win Stanley Cup, my answer is yes, but all the other teams have the same chance. Which team is lucky, which team has players got injured, which team has better hand feeling can all affect the result.” Shutt thinks the Canadiens has a good start in 2015-2016 NHL season and has brought the ambition back to the people from Quebec. There is a chance that some players will get injured, but he is optimistic about the playoffs.

Ice hockey is not only Canada’s sport, it is a gift we would like to share with everyone in the world.

As like other major sports, the biggest change is that the NHL is becoming more ‘Global.’ “You know Russian people play hockey very well. Finland, Sweden, Germany and Switzerland also have good teams. Same ice rink, same rule, but every country has its own style, luckily we combined all cultures in today’s NHL. I believe in the future, China will play a big role in this sport as well. I’m looking forward for that day. Ice hockey is not only Canada’s sport, it is a gift we would like to share with everyone in the world.”

Mr. Guy Evon Cloutier confirmed with that the expectation will arrive shortly – the possibility of an NHL exhibition game at the Bird’s Nest is an ongoing progress. There will be more Hockey stars that will come to Beijing. “I have been living in China for more than 10 years, my wife is Chinese and my child was born in China. The 2008 Olympic Games was like an alarm as China started the research on sports since then. It was focused on specialists, then to ordinary people. In recent years, I see more and more Chinese people join in sports activities like ski and running, I believe it is due to the government’s support and life is slowly changing because of this, leisure, entertainment, culture……sport is one of the elements, and it’s very important, I think the changes start to happen in these 2 years, people start to enjoy life, not just working, working, working.

“As an ice & snow specialist from Canada, CTC has been in China for 15 years, and built long term relationship with many of the ice rink and snow dome in China, and has many experience serving for winter Olympic Games, “You may think there aren’t many kids in China play hockey, but as far as I know, the number is doubled compare with last year, this is the potential of the market. Most of the ice rinks are in shopping mall now, not many big rink for professional sports events. But from the angle of development, more standard ice rinks are needed in China. Canada has held the Winter Olympic Games twice, we have lots of successful experience can help Beijing.” Said by Mr. Guy Evon Cloutier.

The Canadian Ambassador Mr. Guy Saint-Jacques wishes that there can be more winter sports cooperation between China and Canada.

In the reception in the Canadian embassy in China, Shutt shared a story:” In our time, we used to have many competitions with the Soviet Union, I have been there 5 times, when I was walking on the street wearing cloth with Canadian flags or a badge, people would come to me, smile, shake hands and ask me are you from Canada, I said yes, then they will ask, do you play hockey, I said yes. I have the confidence similar thing would happen in China one day.”

The interesting thing happened the second day, when the Montreal Canadiens walking around Silk Street, they saw someone is selling their team jersey, and the saleslady recognized Shutt. “You are the number 22 player?” Shutt asked her how did she know about him, she showed a picture of Shutt’s jersey said “I sold one of your jersey just yesterday.”

*Special thanks to Sports Illustrated China