September 26, 2015

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) Ice hockey medalists at past Winter Olympics have been exclusively European or North American, yet with the next two games being held in South Korea and China, now is the time for East Asia to start challenging the established powers.

The Asian Ice Hockey league is hoping this is the case, The stated aim of the competition, which started back in 2003, is to improve standards in the region. The 2015-16 season contains four teams from Japan, three from South Korea, one from China and, for the second successive season, an affiliated team from Russia, HC Sakhalin, based in the far east of the country. The Asian clubs are made up mainly of local players, supplemented by a handful of imports,usually from the United States or Canada.

Chris Wakabayashi is the head coach of current champion Tohoku Free Blades of Japan. The Japanese-Canadian boss believes that not enough was done to promote and spread the sport after Nagano 1998, and the sport now has an Olympic-inspired opportunity.

''In the short term, it helps but the league needs to have a plan to continue the interest in the sport after the Olympics,'' Wakabayashi told Associated Press. ''Japan missed the boat after Nagano. They had an opportunity to make it a major sport, but they could not make it happen.''

When the games come to the city of Pyeongchang in South Korea's eastern province of Gangwon, situated between China and Japan, it will bring the sport to a wide audience. Winter sports have received little exposure in a region where soccer, baseball and basketball are the leading sports. This can change rapidly if there is success on the global stag, as proven by Kim Yu-na, who became a figure skating sensation around the world and a massive star in South Korea thanks to a stellar career which included winning gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

''We need to promote the game so more kids will start playing, more rinks will be built, more players play at the grass roots level, more players to select at the elite level and the national team gets stronger,'' Wakabayashi said. ''When your national team can get to the Olympics every time, the more attention the sport will receive.''

Sung Baik-you, spokesperson for POCOG -Pyeongchang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games - believes that 2018 will likely come too soon for an Asian podium challenge, and it will take time before there will be a challenge to powers such as the Canada, gold medalist in 2010 and 2014, as well as Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and the United States.

''We are not so sure whether any Asian team will win a medal at 2018 but I believe expanding the fan base and number of athletes is fundamentally more important,'' said Sung.

Progress has been made in the 12 years since the Asian league started. Japan is still the major power, but is coming under increasing challenge.

''When the league started out, the Japanese teams were a lot stronger than the Korean teams or the Chinese teams,'' Wakabayashi said. ''Now, the gap has lessened or some would say it is even. The Japanese teams draw the highest attendances with around one thousand a game, the Koreans a little less.''

''You look at four teams in Japan. Two teams are more of a pro team mentality and two are company based. In Korea, one is a military team, one does a great job to promote the game and the other not so good. China is a government oriented team.''

Wakabayashi said that having a league spread over several countries can create difficulties in harmonizing objectives and methods, but all those nations are eager to boost the sport.

''The league needs to be a stronger organization and make the teams follow their rules and their goals to promote and develop the game of hockey.''

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