KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Song Andong, the first Chinese-born player drafted to play in the National Hockey League, got a first-hand look on Wednesday at the giant shoes he is trying to fill.
Since being picked this year by the New York Islanders, the 18-year-old Song has been billed as the NHL’s answer to Yao Ming, the towering Chinese basketballer who made the NBA such a big hit in east Asia.
Song said he would love nothing more than to emulate Yao by introducing millions of Chinese to another American professional sport, but the enormity of his task became evident when he stood next to the 2.29 meter (7ft 6in) Yao at a news conference on Wednesday.
“Yao Ming has always been a role model of mine,” said Song. “I will try and do the same.”
Unlike Yao, who was drafted from his homeland as the number one pick in the 2002 NBA draft, Song left China when he was just 10-years-old.
He had already learned the basics of playing ice hockey in Beijing but his game quickly developed when he moved to Canada, then New Jersey.
A defenseman, he entered this year’s draft and was selected by the Islanders as the 172nd overall pick.
The teenager is currently in Malaysia as part of Beijing’s bid team for the 2022 Winter Olympics, and talking up his hopes for the Chinese capital to get the vote ahead of the only other bidder, Almaty, the financial capital of Kazakhstan.
Song said winning the Games would be a massive boost to the sport in the world’s most populated country.
China’s national men’s team has never qualified for the Olympics but would be guaranteed a place if Beijing was awarded the 2022 games.
China has had more success in women’s ice hockey, qualifying for the Olympics three times, with a best finish of fourth in 1998.
“After first hearing the idea (Beijing’s bid), I was very excited. I was thrilled to have the opportunity,” Song told a news conference on Wednesday.
“It would definitely be a highlight of my career. A special feeling for an athlete to have.”
The Chinese Olympic Committee has big ambitions for the sport, regardless of whether they win the bid or not. There are already more than 100 teams in Beijing and a league has been set up in the country’s north.
“Seven years is a long time away,” said Song.
“We are not a strong a hockey powerhouse right now. But in seven years, if we can improve basic structures and put our minds toward it we can improve great things.”
Editing by Amlan Chakraborty