MINGGUANG, 25 January (BelTA - China Daily). - Kids in temperate Anhui province hit the ice amid winter sports boom.
As the first whistle sounds, eight kids decked out in protective gear dash into action, propelling the puck skillfully over the ice with hockey sticks in hand.
The high-octane sport used to be a foreign and unaffordable pastime in China, but now it is increasingly popular across the country thanks in most part to the fervor surrounding Beijing 2022.
"I have been practicing ice hockey for over four years. My dream is to become a professional player," said 8-year-old Wei Yuhang, a member of a hockey team in Hefei, the capital of east China's Anhui province.
Wei, who is one of 14 players in the team, fell in love with the sport after watching a game in Beijing a few years ago.
"Ice hockey gives me an opportunity to exercise and make friends. We feel great fighting spirit together as a team. It's just like a big family," he said.
Wei's mom, Li Xuyang, who helps organize the team, told Xinhua that the club was formed with the aim of bringing together the city's young hockey enthusiasts.
Finding an ideal rink for training was by no means easy in Anhui, where annual average temperatures range from 14 to 17 Celsius.
The search yielded a breakthrough in October with the opening of a new indoor ice and snow sports venue, which features a rink covering an area over 600 square meters, a standard curling sheet and three ski simulators.
The venue has welcomed more than 1,500 visitors since opening. To entice more people to the center, an annual pass can be purchased for just 365 yuan (about $58), according to Sun Xuewei from the provincial sports bureau.
"Our kids used to play on ice rinks in shopping malls. Training space and time were restricted because those rinks would also be open to the public. We're grateful the local government is attaching more attention to winter sports and built this venue," said Li.
In order to enhance their competitiveness, the team travels to other cities to play games and for intensive training.
Parents often join the kids and their coach, Fu Qiunan, on those trips, living and training together for weeks at a time. The trips help improve the youngsters' hockey skills as well as strengthening their bond on and off the ice.
They are typical of an increasing number of kids in Anhui, with winter sports such as skating, ice hockey and skiing now included in PE courses in many schools across the province.
The threshold to get involved in such sports has been lowered as more winter sports venues open in this temperate region.
Nationwide, over 346 million people, accounting for around 25 percent of the country's population, have participated in winter sports activities since Beijing's successful bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in 2015, according to the latest figures from China's National Bureau of Statistics.
"Winter sports are gaining in popularity in Anhui thanks to the influence of the upcoming Winter Olympics," said Fu. "Maybe some of our ice hockey players will play in the Olympics one day."