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Islanders prospect Andong Song symbol of hockey growth in China

Islanders White Team defenseman Andong Song skates during

Islanders White Team defenseman Andong Song skates during the third period of the Blue & White prospect scrimmage at Barclays Center on Wednesday, July 8, 2015. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It was a strange setting for a meeting that would have made headlines in the world's largest country.

In an unfinished office inside Twin Rinks, the relatively new skating facility in East Meadow, there sat the two men who currently are the most visible proponents of hockey in China.

Charles Wang is well known around here, of course. He's owned the Islanders for 15 years now.

He's known in China, too, but more for his efforts to promote the game he grew to love after leaving Shanghai at age 8 with his family to begin anew in Queens.

Wang has spent more than $4 million on Project Hope, a program he started a decade ago to get children in Heilongjiang province of China better education and a better chance at playing hockey.

In Harbin and Qiqihar, two of the larger cities in Heilongjiang, the northeastern-most corner of China, there are new hockey rinks built by Wang's foundation.

Across the table in that Twin Rinks office sat Andong Song, known as Misha, along with his parents. The 18-year-old Song, a defenseman drafted in the sixth round by the Islanders two weekends ago, represents the promise of Chinese hockey.

He's a pioneer: the first Chinese-born player ever drafted in the NHL. His hockey odyssey has taken him all over the world, from speed-skating ovals in his native Beijing to suburban Toronto to central New Jersey and now, this past week, to the Islanders' prospect camp and a sitdown with the owner.

"He's trying to help Chinese hockey, just like me and the rest of the players over there," Misha said. "Drafting me is a start, but it's not close to done yet. We have to get more people following the sport, playing hockey. That's how we'll get going."

Yu Song and Bei Gao, Misha's parents, made the decision to move the family to Oakville, Ontario, when Misha was 10. Yu Song is a real estate developer in China and traveled back and forth to Canada every other month while his wife adjusted to life in a very different place with three children.

Plus she had all the usual hockey mom responsibilities. Misha left for The Lawrenceville School, a prep school in New Jersey, at age 15, but the family remained in Oakville.

"We are very excited. It's a big gift for Misha and for us," Yu Song said. "Especially for his mother, bringing him to the rinks for 13 years every day. It's a big honor."

The Songs spoke through an interpreter, Longmou Li, who also is playing a role in China's efforts to expand hockey. He is an analyst for the state-run CCTV, having previously taken up the sport while studying in Edmonton. He has coached in Beijing.

It was Li and his camera crew who documented Misha Song's draft moment two weekends ago in Florida -- certainly the first sixth-round pick ever to have his every move recorded and watched by 2.5 million viewers back home.

And Li has been at prospect camp with his crew, gathering more footage for a program that will air ahead of a big day for China, July 31, when the International Olympic Committee selects the host city for the 2022 Winter Games. It is between Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Misha Song will be part of the delegation to the event.

It's a lot for anyone. It's even more for an 18-year-old just trying to get his feet wet at his first pro camp.

"It's nice to see his composure," Wang said. "He knows it's symbolic right now -- it's just starting for him. But he is mature and he handles it very well."

Wang's efforts to grow hockey in China include the Lighthouse tournament, an event held every winter on Long Island. He pays for a team from Project Hope to fly over, along with teams from Finland, Sweden and Japan, to play in a tournament with teams from the Junior Islanders program.

It was held at Nassau Coliseum each of the previous nine years. There won't be a 10th tournament there, but it will be on Long Island, not in Brooklyn, this coming January.

"It'll be in Long Island, yes," Wang said. "Where we play our games is in Barclays Center. But we'll continue our association on Long Island. That will always be there."

Misha Song knew of Wang's work in Heilongjiang -- Harbin is a 90-minute flight from Beijing -- long before he made the move to North America. "We played against the Project Hope teams a few times," Song said. "They're good."

But Chinese hockey is not to the point that players can stay in China to develop well enough to compete on the international stage. New rinks are going up -- Yu Song is developing one in Beijing -- and there may be more youngsters like Misha Song who come to North America or Europe to play, but China still is ranked 38th of 50 countries in the IIHF World Rankings. Mexico is 32nd.

However, Song's being drafted is a big step forward. This meeting in East Meadow is another step forward. The only Chinese-born owner in the NHL and the only Chinese-born draftee in the NHL, making progress in different ways.

"It's definitely special, nothing that I expected," Misha Song said. "I didn't expect all the attention, but I'm learning to deal with it. It's a little pressure on me and my family, but I think it's good pressure."

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