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Video: Islanders' Song impresses coaches and fans on way to historic NHL draft

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One high school kid has captivated an entire country by blazing a new trail on the ice.

Islanders? Never heard of them.
Islanders? Never heard of them.
Sportsnet

Turns out that being the first person born and bred in your country to be drafted into the NHL is a big deal.

CCTV estimates that over two million people watched and waited to see if Beijing's Andong Song would have his named called by an NHL team at the 2015 Entry Draft. In the sixth round, it was the New York Islanders that came calling.

Now, hundreds of kids playing hockey in China have a homegrown player to look up to, something they didn't have just a week ago.

Six-year-old Wang Haicheng, a forward with the Beijing Hunters, said watching the live broadcast of Song being drafted Saturday as the New York Islanders' No. 172 pick had fired up his passion for the game.

"I feel glad for him. And I hope I can play as good as Song Andong one day," Wang said.

...

"I think Song Andong is going to be a huge inspiration for hockey in China," said Hu Bin, watching his son Hu Aosen run through drills. "The more attention we have, the better the sport will grow in China."

Despite having a relatively small number of skating facilities for its 1.3 billion residents (as compared to Canada and the U.S.), youth hockey culture in China sounds exactly the same as it is here; expensive equipment, year-round practices and parents hauling around bags bigger than their kids via large automobiles all because of love for the game.

Although relatively new to China, ice hockey has been growing quickly, especially among the country's expanding middle and upper classes. Year round, youngsters in Beijing emerge from smart new SUVs lugging their gear at one of the 20 rinks in the city as part of a youth program that boasts around 1,500 players on almost 100 teams.

Beginnings

Song - who prefers to go by the name "Misha" - began playing hockey at the age of six. His first coach describes him as a respectful kid who was very willing to learn. Song starred as a forward for coach Lei Fu's youth team with physical, heady play. Eventually, Song switched full time to defense where he could put that vision and composure to the best use and emulate his idol, Hall of Famer Niklas Lidstrom.

After leaving China, Song moved from forward to defenceman, although Fu said he was a good organizer who could lead the attack from any position.

"That was great because he stays really calm during the match, so thereby can fully take the advantage," Fu said.


Because of the lack of a full-sized rink, Song would often practice on a speed skating track three to four times a week. He was named captain of his Beijing youth team and led them to a tournament victory in Ottawa. To further his hockey education, he and his family moved to the Toronto suburb of Oakville and eventually to New Jersey, where won a scholarship to Lawrenceville High School.

He stepped into a major role on the team shortly after his arrival, said [Lawrenceville] coach Etienne Bilodeau, who added that Song, named captain this season, was their "go-to guy at the blue line."

Will Song end up a "go-to guy" for the Islanders? Who knows. Fans from everywhere will get their first look at him with his new team in the "Blue and White" prospect scrimmage during next week's mini camp.

But he's already drawn premature comparisons to Yao Ming, China's biggest sports crossover star, and gotten post-draft facetime with Sportsnet's crispiest piece of bacon, Gene Principe. Good luck remembering the last Islander to get that.

And then there's this, which says... something about either people's perception of Asians or of the NHL.

Meanwhile, users of China's Weibo social-media network were mostly cheering the news and drawing comparisons with Yao, China's king of basketball.

A few offered Song some advice. "Build yourself up! There are lots of fights in NHL. Learn some kung fu before you go," one user wrote.

The Cutting Edge

Still, after all that, Song's hockey career has barely gotten started. He'll move from Lawrenceville to Massachusetts' Phillips-Andover Prep next season before attending a college. Meanwhile, Beijing is trying to win the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, and having a hometown kid playing in the NHL would be a major achievement for the city should it be the host.

Reading the stories about his upbringing, about the talent he had to progress even this far and about the cultural impact his drafting will have on hockey growth in China has already proven fascinating. We have seen players be the first from their countries to be drafted into the NHL. But we have never seen anything on this scale, perhaps since the first Russians started making their way to the league in the late 1980's and early 90's. Imagine that but with instant video and social media and with one, lone high school kid front and center of the whole movement.

Seeing that kid in an Islanders jersey makes it even better.