By BOB YORK–
It’s highly doubtful anyone would be surprised to know that following its most recent census, the People’s Republic of China continues to be the most populous country in the world with a head count of 1.3 billion people.
It may raise a few eyebrows, however, to know that despite its multitude of citizenry, China has but a mere 184 registered skaters filling the various age groups of its Women’s National Hockey Program. That fact came to light following the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, when one of the two veteran goaltenders on its Olympic team announced her retirement.
Fortunately for the Chinese Ice Hockey Association, which controls the women’s program, finding a qualified candidate didn’t necessitate taking out a “Help Wanted” ad in every newspaper from Beijing to Hong Kong. It had a much more productive alternative. According to the International Olympic Committee, it can be petitioned by any member team “if there is a legitimate need” to fill a roster slot with a non-resident player.
With the program staring at the 2014 Winter Olympics, which are scheduled to begin less than one year from now in Sochi, Russia, and needing to qualify for them beforehand following a seventh-place finish in Vancouver, the Chinese certainly earned themselves an automatic berth in the “legitimate need” category.
Although the rules allow a team to recruit a non-resident player, the nationality of that non-resident player, in this case, had to be of Chinese heritage. This reality version of “Where’s Waldo?” could have proved a daunting task, but it wasn’t. The Chinese Ice Hockey Association may have trouble recruiting from within, but it does do its homework on what’s available on the other side of the Great Wall and knew exactly where to find that missing piece of the puzzle – half a world away, in Guilford, Conn.
Two years prior, just before the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, an 11-year-old goaltender, who could barely peek over the crossbar of the goal she was guarding, journeyed to that city with a team of fellow New Englanders to participate in the Welcoming Friendship Hockey Tournament. And although she was the smallest player on the ice, she didn’t play that way and from that tournament on, Emily Yue has been a fixture on Chinese radar.
“My father (Jim Yue) coached a number of my teams as I was growing up and he organized both the team and the trip to China, explained Yue, a freshman at Deerfield Academy who is spending the winter keeping pucks out of the Big Green’s net. She is splitting games in goal this season with Hannah Insuik (’13), and has been showing Big Green fans the same traits that the Chinese fell in love with. Through 10 games this season, she has been averaging a little better than nine saves on every 10 shots she has faced and owns a 2.4 goals against average.
“We went over there with an all-girls team … with the exception of two boys on our roster,” said Yue, “but that turned out to be no big deal because we ended up playing against all-boys teams … in all three games. They were generally older than we were, too, so it proved to be a great experience for all of us.”
Kicking some bigger boys’ butts, wasn’t the only aspect of Yue’s game that caught the attention of the Chinese, however. Her age – or lack of it – proved advantageous as well. This was a tournament in which players under the age of 14 were eligible to participate and Yue, who was 11 at that time, was one of the youngest players in the entire tournament.
Yue, who has played on numerous New England all-star teams through the years along side her sister, Lauren, who is a senior at Loomis Chaffee, has been right at home playing with and against older players, the only difference here being that the games took place on an international setting.
“It’s been exciting,” said Yue of what has turned into her very own “Miracle on Ice.” “To have a chance to compete in the Olympics is something every athlete dreams about,” and at the age of 15, that dream should have some longevity to it.
With the exception of having played one half of all three games in China and that the team finished with a 2-1 record, Yue couldn’t recall many personal statistics, due mainly to the fact that “it’s been quite a while since we went over there.”
Somebody remembered what she did, though, and during the summer of 2011, Yue received a formal invitation from the Chinese Ice Hockey Association to attend its Olympic team tryouts that would be held in Toronto in September of that year.
Why Toronto? Well, a lack of players isn’t the only area that Chinese hockey needs a boost. It needs more — and better — indoor skating facilities as well. They have just 46 indoor rinks throughout the country, a number that could be easily surpassed in Massachusetts alone.
So, come September, Yue, who was the only skater of Chinese heritage from North America to earn an invite, made her way to Toronto to spend three days practicing and training with China’s other Olympic hopefuls. The good news was that this time, she was playing with and against nothing but girls. The bad news was that most of her teammates would be considered women. Yue, who by now was 13, was facing shots off the sticks of teammates who were as old as 28 to 32 years of age.
Yue quickly discovered, however, that at this hockey summit, age wouldn’t be the only discrepancy she would be facing. At 5-2, she proved to be the smallest skater on the ice.
And her teammates picked up on the fact long before she even got to the ice. “I can still remember the first time I walked into the locker room,” said Yue. “They all started staring at me as though I was too small to play and shouldn’t even be there.
“Looking back though, I think it was a good thing,” added Yue. “It just made me work harder … to show them they were wrong.” And by the time she was heading south of the border, she had proven her teammates — and her head coach — were dead wrong. She had shown them she belonged.
“I can remember the first day of practice,” said her father, Jim. “The coach, who happened to be a stern looking Russian, who hadn’t seen Emily skate before, greeted us at the door of the rink, glanced down at Emily and through an interpreter, said ‘I don’t think it would be a good idea if she went out on the ice.’ The interpreter, who was also a coach and who had seen Emily play in China, informed him that ‘he might be surprised.’ So, he granted Emily ‘one practice.’
“Well, she went out on the ice and did really well,” continued the proud pop. “Then later, at lunch, the coach and the interpreter walked over to our table, the stern Russian cracked a brief smile and the interpreter then informed us that Emily had earned ‘one more practice.’”
Yue would earn the right to participate in a third and final practice that weekend and was then invited to return to Toronto the following month to participate in three exhibition games.
“They won all three games, and Emily played every minute of all three games,” said her father. “Overall, she allowed just six goals and one of the wins was a 2-1 decision following a shootout over Team Ontario and after the final game, they offered her a roster spot on the team.”
”And since that time,” he continued, “Emily tries to spend as much time as possible working out with the team. Last March, during spring break, she spent nearly a month in China practicing with them. Then, this past summer we hosted the team in Connecticut, where it spent three weeks playing some of the premier women’s teams throughout New England.”
If the elder Yue appears passionate about the sport of hockey, that’s because he is. He, too, has grown up with the sport. He’s played it and played it well. And best of all, at least from his daughter’s standpoint, he happens to know a little something about stopping pucks, too. He played goalie at Hotchkiss before moving on to Harvard, where he played two years of varsity hockey and four years as a goalie on the lacrosse team before graduating in 1988.
“I got into pre-med after my sophomore year,” explained Yue, who now has a Dr. in front of his name and an MD after it, is an orthopedic surgeon at Yale-New Haven Hospital and co-director of the Yale Spine Center, “so something had to give on my schedule and it turned out to be hockey.”
Despite an early retirement from the sport Yue left his mark on the game. In fact, during the summers prior to his freshman and sophomore years at Harvard, he was invited to attend the U.S. Junior Olympic Training Camp in Colorado Springs, Colo. There, he would share ice time with other goaltenders such as Tom Bourassa, who would make the jump from Acton-Boxboro (Mass.) High School straight to the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, and Mike Richter, who played at the University of Wisconsin before moving on to a Hall of Fame career with the New York Rangers.
“We were probably just 17 or 18 at the time,” recalled Yue, “but after spending a couple of summers with those guys, I remember being old enough to see the handwriting on the wall.”
Now, it’s his daughter’s turn to see where that handwriting on the wall will take her. Will it take her to Sochi in 2014? Will it take her to Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2018?