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Thunderbirds in China: When hockey west met hockey east

Thunderbirds in China, Les Rose, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

With the Olympic Hockey tournament just around the corner, I thought would combine my love of International hockey and NFB films and do a post on Thunderbirds in China. The film follows the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds hockey team as they tour China in December 1973 and play against local teams and the Chinese National team.

A Little Background

First a little background on international hockey in 1973. After the incredible Summit Series in the fall of 1972, Canadians were starting to be aware that hockey was not our exclusive domain and that people around the world had embraced this beautiful game.

Canada had not participated in the previous Olympic Hockey tournament in Sapporo, Japan, and would not send a team to the World Championships until 1977 and the Olympics until 1980. This was due to a dispute with the International Ice Hockey Federation on the status of amateurs vs. professionals, Canada wanting to be able to send pros to these competitions to give us a chance to beat the Soviet and Czech teams. In any case, the International hockey world was growing while Canada was stagnating.

Hockey in China

Hockey in China began in the mid 1950s when touring teams from the Soviet Union came to play. Yet China did not play at the World Championships until 1972, when they competed in the C-Pool (3rd division) surprising everyone by beating Bulgaria and Denmark and finishing a very respectable 3rd out of 7 teams.

At the 1973 Worlds, China finished 5th out of 8 teams in the C pool by beating France and Great Britain. To improve their game, the Chinese agreed to let the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association send a team to tour the country and help teach the young players.

Thunderbirds in China is a record of this tour. The Thunderbirds started with 2 games against the Chinese national team in Beijing. The Canadians won 5–0 in the first game and 7–0 a couple of days later. Both games were televised throughout China and 18,000 people attended each game at the People’s Sports Palace.

In all the Thunderbirds played 7 games, winning them all and outscoring the Chinese teams 56–5! While these scores are rather lopsided, the UBC players and coaches were very impressed with the Chinese players’ courage and determination, if not with their equipment – check out what the goalies are wearing as facemasks to understand just how bad it was.

Unfortunately they also felt that the Chinese axiom of friendship before competition is what hurt the Chinese players the most in the games.

East Meets West

Yet the film is so much more than a hockey competition. It is a meeting of 2 very different cultures over a unique game that is cherished by both. The young Canadians were exposed to a whole new way of life, including an alternative medicine unknown to them.

As they were the first team from the Western world to play in China, they were quite a curious sight for the Chinese. There is a great moment in the film when the team step off the bus in Harbin (Manchuria), and the people of the town stare at them in disbelief. There is also a scene in which they hold a practice outdoors in front of 17,800 curious spectators!

In spite of the easy games, it is clear to see that the players were greatly affected by the trip and were especially happy to help teach young Chinese kids the finer points of skating. We get the sense that the players were excited to be living this experience and discovering an incredible country, while sharing the game they loved with the Chinese.

I invite you to watch this gem and contemplate our gift to the world, this game called hockey.

P.S. Since I am a bit of a stats fanatic, I include below the scores of all the games played during the tour:

UBC 5–0 Chinese National Team (played in Beijing)

UBC 7–0 Chinese National Team (played in Beijing)

UBC 9–2 Harbin

UBC 14–1 Qiqihar

UBC 5–1 Heilongjiang

UBC 8–1 Kirin (Played in Changchuan)

UBC 8–0 Kirin

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  1. 2002 Giller Prize Nominee Bill Gaston (Mount Appetite)is the player at the beginning asking about his contact lens. The games featured in his novel The Camerman. He also wrote Midnight Hockey. His brother, Bob Gaston, was also on the team – notably in the train at the end of the doc wearing a white shirt and fur hat.

    — Jacqueline Burnett,
  2. I acquired a blue T-Birds jersey # 11 from this 1973 trip; does anyone know who wore it? If you attend UBC Women’s Varsity Volleyball @ War Memorial 2014-15 and look closely, you may see my wife wearing it! Great film, greater team!

    — Ken Goodfellow,
    1. Hi Ken, thanks for your comment. Sorry, unfortunately we don’t have the info about who wore #11, but it’s neat to know you’ve got the jersey!

      — Jovana Jankovic,
  3. I played on the University of Toronto Varsity Blues team that made the exact same trip 3 years after the Thunderbirds. It was an incredible experience. From my perspective, you captured the moment.

    — Mark,
    1. i watched you play,i was in CFB Petawawa and a lot of us watched..i think the captain may have been a guy named George Chan…?

      — Charles,
    2. i recall the game i watched was on an outdoor rink,and though ‘we’ won by some lopsided score the Chinese team were very good skaters..and excellent sports.

      — Charles,
  4. What a great documentary. Loved the part when TB play Chinese National Team in Beijing and the play gets physical. One of the the UBC players on the bench says about the Chinese team reaction to the physical play ‘…I don’t think they’re playing the puck anymore’.

    I enjoyed the 2 cultures discovery of each other as well.

    — Steve,
  5. My husband was part of the Thunderbirds in China entourage and I was wondering how I can get a copy of your tape.
    Much appreciated
    Maureen Carignan

    — Maureen Carignan,
    1. May I ask how old is he now? I am much younger but I was in the same program 16 years, I appreciated this wonderful film.

      — YAN, WX,

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