It’s a rare for a country to take women’s hockey more seriously than men’s. Heck, it’s still a challenge to get some hockey-playing nations to take it seriously at all. But with its women’s team ranked a respectable 15th while its men’s team sits a distant 38th, China is getting serious about its national women's program ahead of the next Winter Olympics and backing the team with some big-time money.
With the 2018 Games being held close to home in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the Chinese are demanding a strong showing from their women’s team. The field is wide-open behind perennial powerhouses Canada and the United States, and China is eyeing a shot at a bronze medal. The women finished seventh in 2010 but failed to qualify in 2014, and the country is pouring money into the program to get the team back in the mix on the international scene.
“Their training center was like the Vatican,” said Daniel Noble, a Toronto-based strength and conditioning coach. “That’s their job – to train all day. So it was a very cool environment to be in. It all comes from government funding. The dining hall is like a five-star restaurant. It’s unbelievable how they are treated. They get treated very, very well.”
Problem is, the players haven’t been trained so well. Enter Noble, whose clients include Michael Dal Colle, the No. 5 overall pick in 2014, and brothers Brett and Nick Ritchie, both top NHL prospects. To overhaul its training regimen, China’s national program flew Noble and an assistant to Beijing, all expenses paid, to assess the players over 10 days in June and build a program tailored to improving the team's on-ice performance. What Noble found was a group of highly skilled players, living and training in a first-class facility, who hadn’t been taught how to train properly.
“Their conditioning was so bad that they needed basic training – things like single-leg squats, balance, stability, on-your-feet core work,” Noble said. “Working things like that are very fundamental but had just never been established.”
Noble took over all aspects of the training program and regimented the schedules for all 26 players. The players trained three times a day for a total of six hours, working on speed, balance, stability and core strength. They were used to army-style discipline – standing in rows, walking single file in and out of the gym – so it was easy for Noble to be a drill sergeant when he had to be. As a self-described high-energy trainer, he sometimes yells at his clients, and it was no different for him in China. Of course, Noble never had to use a translator before to bark orders back home in Canada, so inevitably something would get lost in translation.
“A lot of times I would say something, and I’d be yelling at the translator,” Noble said. “But then he would turn around and start clapping at everybody, and then they’d turn around and just clap back at me. I was like, ‘What just happened here?’ ”
The translation hiccups weren’t the only problem Noble encountered in Beijing. The air was awful – “it felt like I’d smoked a pack of cigarettes by the end of the day” – and the online training program he uses to track his athletes’ progress was blocked by the country’s firewall.
Overall, though, the experience was a positive one. Noble laid the foundation for the team's training, and his assistant stayed behind for a month to ensure it took hold. In October, the national program will fly the players to Toronto to train with Noble for the rest of the year. It's serious stuff for a team that has everything riding on making it to Pyeongchang and pushing for a medal.
“A lot of their funding seems to come through based on where they place,” Noble said. “This is really do or die for them. If they don’t do well now, then the program might get cut altogether.”