Ice Hockey has never really been a big sport in China. But ever since the promotion of the 2022 Winter Olympics to be held in Beijing and Zhangjiakou, ice sports has been building up momentum, diverting people’s attention from the racing tracks to the ice rinks and mountain slopes. Rudi Ying, a promising 21-year old Chinese ice hockey player seized global attention when he was just nine years old. Back in 2006, the youth team of the Boston Bruins at National Hockey League (NHL) invited him for youth training after watching him play. He now plays for the HC Kunlun Red Star Heilongjiang of the VHL, a secondary league under Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). Some pundits speculate, if things goes well, he could be the future Jeremy Lin of ice hockey.
In February this year, he scored his first goal in a KHL game against Admiral Vladivostok, a professional ice hockey team based in Vladivostok, Russia. It was also the first ever goal by a Chinese player in the Russian league. And yet, he is also well-known because of his dad, Ying Da, a renowned Chinese actor and director. His mom, a screenwriter, wrote on Chinese social media WeChat after the goal, “All for this moment, all our efforts have paid off.” His mom accompanied him throughout his professional training across the Pacific Ocean in the United States ever since he was nine years old. It wasn’t an easy path.
We were glad to meet Rudi on the ice rink in between his training and matches, and have an exclusive interview at the infirmary.
Falling in love with the ice
How did you fall in love with this sport at the beginning? What is the most attractive part of ice hockey for you?
For me, it was actually by accident, not designed. When I was three, I went shopping with my mom in Guomao, and then there happened to be an ice rink, and I started to learn skating, because it’s so boring to shop with my mom. As figure skating didn’t really appeal to me, I began to pursue ice hockey instead.
Then I started to get really good at it, but the ice hockey community in China is still quite small. So when I was about eight or nine years old, I felt that there was not much future playing in China, because even if you reach the top level in China, you would probably just be playing for the national team. Our national hockey team is not even top 20 in the world. So we moved to the United States for better ice hockey training. I went to school and played hockey there until I was 18, and came back to China, so it’s basically how I got into professional hockey.
The reason I could stick with hockey for so many years is that I really love this sport. It brings loads of joy and excitement, for both the audiences and the players. The main attraction for me is the speed. Ice hockey is the fastest among all team ball sports. For sports that take place on land, no matter how fast you run on the soccer field or basketball court, it’s not comparable with the speed on the ice. I think that’s fascinating. All group sports have commonalities, whether it’s bumping people, scoring goals or developing good chemistry with teammates. However ice hockey is unique in two aspects, high-speed collisions, and the pace of skating.
When did you decide to pursue hockey as more than just a hobby, and aspire to be professional?
I think that that was already determined once I chose to go to United States for training, because if it’s just a hobby, I could just play here in China, or maybe go to university in China and then study overseas. That’s why I decided to go to the States when I was nine in the first place. Back then I already knew I was striving to be professional. Even if I failed to develop a pro career, at least I could rely on hockey to go to university or something. That’s why I have been rather focused on hockey ever since, and school has always come the second in my life. I thought I could finish my college degree at twenty something, but unexpectedly I was signed to play pro at the age of 18 and had to abandon school. I didn’t even graduate from high school.
I will definitely want to go to college afterwards. It’s never too late to study, but ice hockey is a young man’s game. So at least I could play hockey while I’m still young, and it is not too late to go to school even at 30.
Are there any impressive stories you’d like to share while training in America, something unforgettable maybe?
After I went to the US, I found out that the whole environment is different. Everything seems stricter and more professional. Then when I was only nine, I saw that it’s quite professional even for children’s training. For example, they have their own dressing room, and they wouldn’t carry with them home all the protective gear. Instead, you leave them at the rink. After experiencing this, when you are back in China, you find that it’s really like child’s play. First of all, the training methods are very different. In China, they would focus on the basic techniques in group lessons, but in the United States, people focus more on practicing playing as a team. Many players may not be particularly good at personal skills, but they have experience playing within the team.
We all know your father is a famous actor, does he have a strong family impact on you? Or do they want you to get into the show biz?
My parents rarely plan these things or design my path for me. They would just support me, and allow me to walk my own path. However their biggest influence was to never let me give up on things. Take piano for example. When I was three years old, I thought piano was so hard that I want to give it up after a few weeks. They would supervise me and not let me give up. In fact, I chose to learn piano by myself, the same for ice hockey. Ice hockey is just so hard in the beginning, they actually pushed me forward.
As for entering the show business, they don’t really care that much. If I want to do entertainment, they will definitely support it, but they will not help me. My dad once told me that if I want to get into the show biz, I need to be on my own, not relying on him for connections. But even so, it would be when I’m 30 or 40 years old. Unlike other parents, they are more supportive of me playing the sports instead of going to college. Other parents may feel that school is more important.
So hockey is more like a sports for rich people right? Kids need financial support to get on to this path?
Yeah, it also depends on where you are I guess. In China it’s definitely a cash-burning sport for the rich, unless you were enrolled in the sports school in the northeastern part of China (which is famous for winter sports). In China, since the sport isn’t that popular, the required equipment is all imported and is really expensive. However, it’s fine in the United States, because it’s so much more common. In the early years, when I played ice hockey in Beijing, the people I came into contact with were all at least receiving adequate financial support from their families. Recently it’s getting better, and more promotion has been implemented because of the 2022 Winter Olympics. When I was a kid, there were only around two to three hundred kids playing this sport in Beijing, but now there are probably tens of thousands, showcasing the rapid development over the years.
Is there a teammate or coach you are particularly fond of, or whose style influenced you?
I’ve had a lot of really good coaches, some bad ones too. The good ones taught me a lot. Right now I still keep in contact with the first coach I had when I went to the US. He really helped me a lot. He named me team captain, and gave me extra personal tips, and taught me a lot of stuff that was missing from training in China, like teamwork, and tactics, etc. But of course I had a lot of bad coaches too. They would crush your confidence, and put you under a lot of pressure, and stop you from reaching your full potential.
I like a lot of my teammates, but due to constant transfers in pro, it’s very hard to keep in touch, because your friends can easily move to a different team. Like him (pointing to a guy next to him), I’m his son’s godfather. We are really good friends. But after last season our team didn’t sign him, so he got signed to another team. I thought I couldn’t see him again, but now we have him back. That’s why friendships among hockey players are pretty fragile.
Do you have an idol on the ice rink, a favorite athlete?
Yeah maybe when I was younger, like Sidney Crosby. Back in those days, he was really a top player. However when you start to be a professional, you can’t have idols, because your so-called idol might be your opponent. When playing in the KHL, there were a lot of players that used to play in the NHL. Some older Russian players they want to go back to Russia because they are not very used to playing in North America. So there is a chance that your idol may become your opponent, and then you can’t treat him like an idol.
About training life
I noticed that it writes “curfew” on your training agenda, so there is curfew every night?
Yeah, we are all adults now, everyone is really self-disciplined. If I know that there is a game tomorrow, and I still go out tonight for fun, until one or two in the morning, I will definitely play badly the next day. If this behavior continues, I will be fired because it’s a serious job.
In fact, professional hockey leagues are very cruel. The clubs or the coaches, they don’t really care about personal relations with you. It is not like ordinary workplaces or companies in China, where maybe you could pull some strings, work on your relationship with your boss or something, make him happy. For pro hockey teams, they don’t care about this. As long as you play well, you will play and if you don’t play well, they will just let you go, and then gradually you lost your job. So I think that curfew is just what’s written on the agenda, but almost everyone looks after themselves.
Are there rules in the team? Diet or others?
Neither the coaches nor the teams would ask you to follow a certain diet. It’s all about self-control. As I said, you could go to McDonald’s every day, get fat, then you lose your speed. It means not only you don’t have a job here, but also in any other leagues. If you can’t score in this league, then no teams will take you, and you’ll be downgraded to lower leagues for worse pay.
Is the salary relevant to the points (goals & assists) you score?
Not that relevant. There might be some players getting bonuses, but normally we just have our monthly salary, and if the team wins, we all get bonuses. Ice hockey doesn’t encourage individuality, or selfishness. If you reward the scorer 200 yuan each time he scores, he would be unlikely to pass the puck. He would want to score himself. So it’s about the mentality. For instance, if the team wins, each player gets 2000 yuan.
About personal life
Would you go traveling if the season ends?
I would try to make time. Because you know that ice skating is against human’s natural movement. Humans are designed for running, not sliding. You slide by kicking to the sides, and when you run you run forward.
It causes huge damage to the body. I train two or three hours a day. Almost everyday, we have either trainings or games, and only rest for a day occasionally. Every season is like seven or eight months, so it takes a huge toll on the body. Then I try to take about twenty or thirty days off the ice, at least two or three weeks. We will finish this season in February, then maybe have Chinese national team training in March, games in April, and then the training camp starts in July, and we have to practice on our own in May and June.
I never stop in the summer, I always practice myself. But I usually find some time at the end of April and early May to rest a bit. For example, I went to Thailand for five or six days last year, and time is really limited. However, you have to take at least two or three weeks off for a year, otherwise your body can’t stand it and your joints and ankles will have serious problems.
Your father will come to see the games?
He comes almost every time, even to training.
Does he have any requirements for you?
Not really actually as I’m an adult now, but he would definitely expect me to play well, and give me some advice from time to time, but I am already playing professional so..
How do you feel playing in VHL now? What’s your current state?
Now I am in the VHL, a league below KHL. I feel pretty good at the moment. To be honest it’s like fish in the water. But I think I could always do better. My goal is to get into KHL. This season in the VHL, I didn’t play particularly well, mainly because of personal reasons. I’m slowing regaining confidence. I hope I could play in the KHL this season, and then I want to see if I could score many goals in KHL the next season, and then the season after next, see if I could get into the NHL.
Is there a season that you played particularly well?
I have just started my career. Last season was actually pretty good. The season before last, I was also playing in VHL that year, but I was really struggling. I played 48 games, with only two goals, no assists. That is a really poor performance no matter where you are. That year I was barely surviving, but last year I actually made my contribution to the team, 21 points in 50 games, and that was about the average of players in the league. Then I was transferred to the KHL at the end of the season and scored my first goal there, so I think last season might have been the highest point in my career, but still I hope to do better this year.
What’s it like playing in Russia and back in China?
There is not much difference, as the teams you play are the same. But of course I prefer to play at home, with my family coming to watch, and most of the audience is Chinese. But it’s the same if you talk about the level and the environment of the game.
Is joining NHL your final goal?
Like I said, this year I hope to play in the KHL, at least a dozen or 20 games. Then next year I hope I can have a solid performance in the KHL. And then after the 2022 Winter Olympics, I would try to get into NHL, because the Winter Olympics is a world stage, where many people from NHL would pay attention to us. Otherwise, the NHL scouts usually don’t pay that much attention to leagues in Europe or Russia.
If the scouts pick you, they would give you a tryout contract, a trial contract, maybe let you come to their training camps, we’ll see.
What preparations would you make for the Winter Olympics?
Honestly, for me as a player, I don’t have much preparation to make. It’s mainly our country’s work. For us, we just try our best to improve our skills. The better I get until 2022, the more contribution I will make for my country. And of course, if there is some promotion work about hockey in China now, such as interviews or TV programs, I would love to participate in them, like the variety show I was on, called Ice Hockey Hero (a show about celebrities coaching kids on ice sports). Other than that, there is not much that I could do.
Which part do you think you need to improve the most, techniques or physical fitness?
If you ask me about the gap between me and world-class players, then there is gap everywhere, whether it’s speed, strength, consciousness, experience, anything that makes you a better player. But I will take it slowly, I’m just 21 years old.