Hockey heroes savor bronze breakthrough

With an unexpected podium finish at its home Paralympics, China’s para ice hockey team sprang one of the biggest surprises of Beijing 2022, and now the squad’s medal breakthrough is expected to massively enhance the sport’s appeal in the country.,Having only been established five years ago, China’s para ice hockey team took just nine days to change the landscape of the highly physical Western-dominated sport by scoring 26 goals in five wins to bring home a bronze medal in its Paralympic debut in Beijing.,Led by tournament standouts Wang Zhidong and Shen Yifeng, Team China proved too fast, too furious and too resilient in three big round-robin wins and a tough qualifying finals victory over the Czech Republic.,After being overpowered by eventual champion the United States in the semifinals, China bounced back to claim third place with a 4-0 victory over South Korea in the bronze-medal game on Saturday.,Although still a long way off matching the intensity and skills of powerhouses the US and Canada, the host team’s rapid rise to the sport’s top echelon has significantly lifted the event’s profile in a country where sports participation is forecast to continue to rise among the 85 million people with disabilities.,”It’s honorable for us to have won a medal in these Paralympics,” said Shen, who scored eight goals to share top spot in the Beijing Games scoring chart with American forward Brody Roybal.,”Despite the fact we could not change the color of the medal from bronze to gold, it’s still a big achievement and our efforts made our dreams come true.,”Right now, it doesn’t feel like it was a very tough journey. We achieved what we set out to do and we’re really satisfied. It makes all the hard work and sacrifices worth it,” Wang, the team’s assists leader (seven), said after clinching bronze.,Assembled in 2017 from a group of summer para athletes and sports enthusiasts who’d never even tried ice sledging before, China’s national para ice hockey program has grown into a serious contender at elite level under the guidance of Russian head coach Nikolay Sharshukov.,The central government’s increasing investment in para winter sports infrastructure and logistics support also played a big part in guaranteeing quality practice at home and international tests abroad.,The personal sacrifices made by the players amid the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as their determination to battle back from injuries in the team’s formative years, also warrant huge credit.,”They have some really good players,” Team USA’s Declan Farmer, the tournament’s points leader, said after his team beat China 11-0 in their semifinal.,”We were eventually able to get some pucks going offensively, but I don’t know if the score is indicative of how good a team China is and how good they will be in the future, for sure.,”That’s really great for the sport. We want more teams up at the top.”,Players such as Shen, whose lightning-quick stick-handling has earned him the nickname “Little Whirlwind”, have even drawn comparisons to NHL superstars.,”He (Shen) is Connor McDavid on a sled,” Slovakia forward Martin Joppa said after his team conceded four goals to Shen in a 7-0 rout for the host in their Paralympic Games opener.,The medal finish in Beijing is only the beginning for para ice hockey in China, reckons Shen.,”Sometimes when you’ve been training at the same place for too long, things start to feel mundane and you feel frustrated. But you remember that we’re doing this for the Paralympic Winter Games and it helps,” said the 23-year-old native of Hebei province, who had both legs amputated after a train accident in 2005.,”We’ll build on this experience and work on the areas that we still need improvement in, and get stronger as a team. We want to work hard to stand on top of the podium.”,With training facilities built for the Paralympics to open to the public soon, the governing body of para sports development sees a bright future for para ice hockey and all sports for people with disabilities in China.,”We hope the great performance of the Chinese para athletes at the Beijing Winter Paralympics will encourage more people with disabilities to get out of their homes and embrace sports,” said Zhao Sujing, head of the sports department of the China Disabled Persons’ Federation.,”And through sports, they can then become more involved in our society.”