Islanders prospect Andong Song’s hockey journey started in China mall – USA TODAY
ANDOVER, Mass. âÂ Itâs a glorious autumn day in this prep-school town, and the most improbable groundbreaker in hockey is heading to the rink, ready to put in a couple of more hours at the blue line with a physique not much wider than the shaft of a stick.
Itâs a pretty short list of players, after all, who got their start at a rink in a Beijing shopping mall, all 1Â million square feet of it. The rink was called LeCool, the shopping center GuoMao, or China World Mall.Â Mostly the activity consisted of people skating in wobbly circles, with a few stray hockey kids tucked in the corner.Â Six-year-old Andong Song, whom everybody knows as Misha, went along with a friend. They had no hockey skates his size, so he wore figure skates.Â It didnât matter. He was smitten.
Andong Song is 18 years old, a post-graduate student at Phillips Academy and fully aware that he does not remotely resemble most aspiring NHLers. Not with his 6-0, 168-pound frame, and especially not with the country of his birth.
âI had never heard of hockey, but I thought the equipment was cool,â Song says. âI thought the Zamboni was cool, as well.â
A dozen years and many shifts later, Misha Song finds himself a puck-carrying pioneer, having become the first Chinese player to be selected in the NHL draft, the New York Islanders taking him on the sixth round, 172nd overall, last June. Charles Wang, the Islandersâ Shanghai-born owner, says he had nothing to do with the decision â that it was strictly the call of Eric Cairns, the Islandersâ director of player development, and the organizational scouting staff.
Not that Wang was displeased by it, at all.
âI hope it works out, because he is a great kid,â says Wang, who has spent the last 10 years promoting hockey and cultural exchange in Heilongjiang Province in northeast China, conducting hockey clinics through an initiative called Project Hope.
Misha Song once played in a Project Hope tournament, but is not a product of Wangâs program so much as his own passion for the game.
One trip to the mall is all it took. Soon Mishaâs father, Yu Song, a real-estate executive, was coming home with hockey skates from a business trip to Russia. Friends from the U.S. were sending over sticks, helmets and other pieces of equipment. Misha started taking private skating lessons, then joined his friendâs team.
With only two youth programs inÂ Beijing, he often had to travel up north for tournaments and better competition. By the time he was 7, Misha came home with trophies for having the best shot and scoring the most goals. His previous sporting interests, soccer and swimming, faded like cheap paint.
âHockey was something that was different. You couldnât watch it on TV, like soccer or basketball. It was special,â Song says.
Moving to Canada
The oldest of three children, Song rose rapidly through the shallow ranks of Chinese hockey until age 10, when his parents moved to the Toronto suburb of Oakville, and their son found himself immersed in hockey heaven. It was a massive step up in intensity and competition level, but Song embraced it. During lunch hour at school, he took skating lessons. He had to adjust to a new pace of play, to checking, to a style that was much more team oriented than it was in China.
âI just kept working and having fun and doing what I was supposed to be doing,â Song says.
Playing bantam for the Oakville Raiders club, Song moved to defense and quickly took to the challenge of thwarting goals as opposed to scoring them. He savored being able to control the flow of the game, and seeing the whole sheet in front of him. He modeled himself after Nicklas Lidstrom, the Swedish Hall of Famer who won the Norris Trophy as the NHLâs top defenseman seven times. Song’s favorite team was the Rangers, a loyalty he has since disavowed.
âI switched over (after the draft,)â Song says with a smile.
At 15, Song left Canada and enrolled at the Lawrenceville School near Princeton, playing three years, the last as senior captain for coach Etienne Bilodeau, who also had Song in Honors Pre-Calculus. His grade was an A.
âHe is a true gentleman, a scholar and a good hockey player,â Bilodeau says. âHe was a dream to coach âÂ forever polite, inquisitive, coachable. He always had a positive mindset, and was always receptive to feedback. He was the kind of player who made everyone around him better.â
Not unlike virtually every other athlete who has broken a color or ethnic barrier, Song has heard his share of slurs and taunts. It started in Canada, with griping from parents whose kids mightâve lost a roster spot, or playing time, to âthat Chinese kid,â and continued at Lawrenceville, with prep school opponents trying to get in his head.
âThereâs a lot of chirping in hockey and it can be pretty nasty at times,â Song says.Â âYou sort of expect it. Youâd hear racial chirps, stuff about Asians, but I wouldnât have a reaction. I wouldnât listen to it. You just block it out. I donât think it ever affected me in any way. Iâd just keep playing, or play even harder.â
An aspiring economics or science major who is looking at various Ivy League schools, Song opted to spend a post-graduate year at Phillips, a school with alums who include Rangers forward Chris Kreider and New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider. Just before the academic year began, he attended a camp for Islanders draft choices and did well, according to Cairns.
âHe showed nice skills and a lot of potential,â Cairns says. âHeâs a good skater, and thatâs a really good thing to start with, because itâs a skating game these days. Heâs a good-character kid with a nice-sized frame who is willing to do the work. It will be interesting to see how he develops this year.â
In the meantime, Song is tunneling into his schoolwork, skating on his own and trying to add some beef and muscle. He is eager to get started with the new season, playing for Phillips and coach Paul Tortorella, an English teacher, former goaltender for Yale and Buffalo Sabres draftee (no relation to John Tortorella, new Columbus Blue Jackets coach), and keep his improbable journey moving forward.
Looking to 2022 Olympics
Song has played for Chinaâs U-18 team in the International Ice Hockey Federationâs Division II-B World Championships the past two years. While nobody is suggesting China is close to being a hockey heavyweight (China finished fifth out of six teams last April I in the world tournament in Serbia), Song believes more and more players are going to come out of his homeland.
When he went back to visit last year, he was struck by the vast improvement in the level of play, and increase in the number of kids playing. Song is assured of being one of the faces of the Winter Olympics in the 2022 Beijing Games.
âAlready there are young kids who Iâm sure are aspiring to be the next Misha Song,â BilodeauÂ says.
The soft-spoken and self-effacing Song would never suggest that, his focus instead firmly fixed on continuing to get better. Skating, poke-checking, breaking out of his own end, running the power play â there is much to do, and so many reasons to do it. For 45 minutes, Misha Song answers questions about playing hockey and being a groundbreaker, tracing his path all the way back to the figure skates and the Beijing mall. He quietly thanks you for your time and looks you in the eye, and doesnât minimize any aspect of what is ahead of him.
âI really feel like thereâs some pressure on my shoulders to do something,âÂ he says. âI think itâs something thatâs going to make me work even harderÂ to reach my goal to play in the NHL. Itâs special to be the first one, but itâs not going to come easily. I know I have to work at it.â
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