Barry Beck Finds His Purpose Bringing Hockey To China

Former NHL star overcomes barriers to promote sport

Posted Mar 10, 2015

For years, Barry Beck had a very clear professional purpose. As a National Hockey League (NHL) All-Star and the captain of the New York Rangers hockey team for several years, Beck was widely considered one of the toughest and most imposing defenseman to ever play the game. As such he not only led with his playing ability, but also defended his teammates on the ice. And now as the general manager and coach of the Hong Kong Academy of Ice Hockey, Beck has a new purpose—helping teach children hockey and promoting the sport in China. Just as he often ran over the opposing team’s players during the course of a game, he is now breaking down barriers to help share the sport.

Having played sports for most of his life, Beck understands the importance of the coach in fostering healthy attitudes and behaviors. Beck was recruited to help run the Academy by chairman and founder Thomas Wu. He tells me: “My role at the academy is that of a mentor. I coach kids from 6 years old all the way up to the Hong Kong Men’s National Team. My main focus on teaching anyone at any age is respect. A mentor/teacher understands the importance of responsibility. Then we can see the exciting part of creativity in the sport of ice hockey.”

Beck’s coaching also involves developing a culture of growth and development. Research suggests that coaches who create a “mastery-oriented” climate that teaches students the value of continued practice and skill development, as compared to a “performance-oriented” climate which focuses primarily on winning, will see more effort and improvement from their athletes. Beck says: “Young players need guidance and a pathway to achieve their goals. Keeping kids focused is all about setting small goals for them that they can achieve. It has to be fun for the teacher and pupil.”

In order to foster the climate of respect and responsibility, and to encourage positive growth, Beck has to focus on helping the children develop communication skills as a way of resolving conflict. He says, “If they still have a problem I take the parent and student aside and see how we can improve the situation together. Never take anything for granted on what students and parents should know. This is great for developing communication skills for all parties.” This approach is crucial, as research suggests the importance of involving parents in teaching children good communication. In the most extreme cases, parental involvement is helpful in managing more severe behavioral issues such as conduct disorder.

To be sure, Beck’s task has not been easy, and in many ways mirrors some of the broader issues faced in health promotion. Specifically, in order to help facilitate healthy behavior such as exercise and sport participation, we need to consider our cultural competence, or how a given behavior can be understood in terms of cultural norms and beliefs about a given behavior or activity. Theory and research suggest that improving cultural competence can be an important factor in reducing health disparities for minority groups. 

The first issues with which Beck had to contend were simple: climate and economic differences between China and his native country of Canada. Beck tells me: “Hong Kong is really the warmest climate where hockey is played in all of China. Hong Kong is a world of retail. All the hockey rinks are in shopping malls because it is commercial use first and hockey second. We need proper facilities to produce quality hockey players. Ice rental is the most expensive in the world so we use other resources like inline hockey and synthetic ice where the cost is manageable. Our program targets local kids so you must be able to make it affordable for them.”

Health experts suggest that in order to promote healthy behaviors we need to engage a range of government, business and educational organizations to “be on the same page” to reinforce wellness. Similarly, Beck has found the need to involve multiple partners in developing a hockey culture in China. He says: “For people starting new programs I think seeking key strategic partners is must. Forming trustworthy partners is essential for success. This way you have to learn as a team to overcome challenges set before you. For our sport it is the government and quality sponsors. We operate primary and high school hockey leagues so government support is needed to provide assistance with funding for a sustainable program. The main obstacle we have faced is having the education bureau accept us as a sport. Ice hockey is relatively new to Hong Kong so there is a lot of work to do in the trenches before people will climb on board. You have to show how your brand is helpful in the lives of young students across Hong Kong. Now we are starting to see results after 7 years of hard work.”

In doing so, Beck needed to contend with stereotypes about hockey, particularly its violent nature. These stereotypes have a basis in reality. Hockey has a long history of allowing fighting in hockey games, as well as incidents of injuries as a result of violent acts such as stick-swinging and illegal checks. Further, more evidence is emerging that hockey players are at risk for concussions and that these concussions are associated with devastating health consequences. And despite the fact that martial arts have a long history in Chinese culture, Beck recognizes that many Chinese people view the violence in hockey differently. He says, “Fighting in hockey and martial arts are different as one is a reaction while the other focuses on the spirit and self-cultivation. Children develop in a safe environment. Responsibility, respect and social interaction are components that parents want their children to learn. In Hong Kong you are teaching children and parents the benefits of playing ice hockey.”

In many ways, Beck is an ideal person to help break down these stereotypes. Thirty years ago, when fighting and violence still permeated the NHL, Beck was one of the first players to take a stand and speak out in favor of the league protecting its players by ejecting those who fight from a game. And now, because of Beck and others, the sport of hockey is changing as fighting becomes less a part of the game and the NHL is cracking down on blows to the head by giving severe penalties to offending players.  Beck says: “The stereotypes are that it can be a violent sport when full contact is introduced. Today’s equipment is lighter and more protective so players are faster. Safety always comes first at any level. Giving parents positive information and having them comprehend that the benefits far outweigh the risk makes them more comfortable. There is always a chance of injury no matter what precautions you take. Players get caught up in the excitement of the game and can lose their focus.”

The effort of Beck and his partners is working. The Hong Kong Academy of Ice Hockey has run over 200 demonstrations to over 25,000 children since its inception. And they teach hockey to over 400 youth athletes weekly. Further, they have established the first ice hockey league in Hong Kong, with 15 participating schools. Beck is hoping that the NHL takes notice and gets involved. He says, “I hope the NHL realizes the potential of marketing their brand to a country of 1.3 billion people.”

But regardless, Beck will continue his good work. He says: “I have learned a lot after living for 7 years in China. I have found my spirit and understand my purpose. Our academy will continue on our path to helping local organizations familiarize themselves with ice hockey as the sport continues to grow. I am only a small part of a team that commits itself to helping others develop.”

“It is a learning experience for everyone.”

Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl. 

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