The Chinese team was busy packing its bags Monday morning after a disappointing finish to the 2007 IIHF World Women’s Championship. They were victorious in only one of their four games, and were outscored 26-11 overall.
China finished this year’s championship in sixth place, but depending on who you ask, it might not be their placing that is the team’s biggest concern right now. After losing 12-2 to Sweden to close out the tournament Sunday afternoon, Head Coach Jorma Siitarinen announced he was leaving the team after eight months behind the bench.
Siitarinen, a native of Helsinki, Finland, joined the Chinese women’s program last year, hoping he could give it some much-needed direction. Despite enjoying his time in China, he ultimately decided the task was too much for him to handle.
“It was very nice,” Siitarinen said. “It was very interesting. Life is so different. It’s very hard with hockey because they don’t have enough players. It’s always practice, practice, practice--we have a lot of practices.”
With 1.3 billion people in China, it would be easy to assume that the women’s national team would have a wealth of players to choose from to stock their roster. But of the 150 registered female hockey players in China, only 40 could potentially compete at this level.
A lack of players was one of Siitarinen’s biggest reasons for leaving the team, but it is really only the tip of the iceberg.
“It’s a very young [team], but the point is that they don’t have good basic skills,” Siitarinen said. “They are coming along now, and some players are 18 or 19 years old, but they have very bad stickhandling. [They’re] together 11 months [of the year], [with] practice Monday to Saturday, three times a day. And it’s very much, sometimes too much, but they want to have practices, and it’s very hard to coach.”
Without any truly knowledgeable coaches in the country, Team China is forced to hire foreigners for their women’s teams. Siitarinen said that not speaking the language in order to communicate properly with his players was always a major concern.
“I had this young guy [as a translator]. But it’s difficult when you don’t really communicate with the players, and through a translator it’s not the [right] feeling.”
The Middle Kingdom has now had five different coaches at the helm for the last five World Championships, a sign that changes need to be made to China’s hockey program. But according to Siitarinen, hockey is just not a priority.
“What is very important is the short-track skating, and speed skating, but there are no hockey players,” said Siitarinen.
“People don’t know about hockey. Basketball is very strong, it’s very much on TV and the kids play basketball, volleyball is very good, and football. They have now some new ice rinks but it’s only for speed skating and figure skating.”
The 57-year-old will now return home to Ousterland, a village in the Dutch province of North Holland, to spend time with his two daughters. Despite not coaching Team China to a better finish at the 2007 tournament, Siitarinen has some fond memories of his time in the city of Harbin where he and the team lived.
“Harbin is a big town. Nine million people live there. It’s not so cold, and every day there’s sun. It was not so bad--a very interesting time for me.”
China will host the 2008 IIHF World Women’s Championship next April. It will be the first-ever Women’s Worlds held in that country.