NHL enforcer shows his soft side by helping HK hockey kids
Barry Beck strives to build a viable Asian hockey culture at Thomas Wu's Hong Kong Academy of Ice Hockey
He was the man of steel. If you crossed him, a beat-down normally ensued. A very, very vicious beat-down. A powerful enforcer in a game ruled by intimidation, Barry Beck battered opponents in the National Hockey League for the better part of 11 seasons.
Don’t buy it? Check out the videos on Youtube. Dave Brown, Chris Nilan, Rick Tocchet … the list of gladiators is impressive, if not sobering.
A 6-foot-3 defenseman who not only took on anyone and everyone to protect his teammates, he also held the role of captain with New York Rangers and notched 104 career goals and 251 assists on three teams, along with 1,016 hard-earned penalty minutes.
A man who could punish you on the scoreboard, or in the alley. So how did he end up at the Hong Kong Academy of Ice Hockey in Kowloon?
“I had some friends that play on the Vancouver police team, and they play in a tournament every September in Hong Kong,” Beck said. “So when they came back to Vancouver, one of the players called and said there’s a man interested in setting up a hockey club in Hong Kong, and do you know anybody.”
Beck had never been to Asia, and the more he thought about it, the more he was intrigued. “They were smart enough to bring me over in January,” he says, with a laugh — the weather is much cooler, much more pleasant then.
That was 11 years ago when they had just 10 students in that first lesson. Today, the academy boasts more than a thousand kids, with hundreds more joining each month. Hard to believe, but Hong Kong is becoming a hockey haven of sorts.
For his part, Beck deflects the credit — fully backing the strategic vision of local businessman and chairman Thomas Wu, “an avid hockey player and an avid hockey fan,” along with steady, unrelenting promotion in local schools and, most importantly, the popularity of the game as a character builder.
“We’ve been to over 350 schools now, doing demos, continuing to promote. [We have kids] in a high school league, a primary school league, regular programs, we have a great recruiter … we also hold seminars for adults, for officials and scorekeepers,” he said.
Wu is also heavily involved in the international hockey scene, as vice-president of the IIHF for Asia and a key player in the build-up to the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.
It’s no coincidence that NHL pre-season games featuring the Calgary Flames and the Boston Bruins will be played in Shenzhen on Sept. 15 and again in Beijing, on Sept. 19.
No doubt, the NHL is drooling at the prospect of the growing popularity of hockey in China, having clearly skipped the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang for more lucrative territory.
According to the Sports Business Journal, there is also talk that Tencent, a giant Chinese online conglomerate that also specializes in entertainment, might broadcast up to 17 games a week, and even build a hockey studio.
On the heels of this growing interest, the academy has also entered into a valuable partnership with the powerful Swedish Ice Hockey Association — one of the top three in the world — adapting their highly successful programs that stress education and character building over technical prowess.
“You have to build the culture, that’s the hardest part, to get kids to think like hockey players,” says Beck, who just turned 60. “(And) you have to have kids having fun and enjoying themselves. It’s a building process.”
As Beck explains, playing in a sub-tropical climate has its challenges. “It’s a small association here in Hong Kong, we only have basically three rinks that we work out of, and they’re all in big malls.
“The expense is huge … so you try to take away some of that expense from the players, make it affordable for them, provide equipment for them, so that they have a chance.”
And speaking of that chance — how did one of the greatest NHL enforcers transition to a nurturing mentor?
It comes with the territory, says Beck. As captain of the Rangers, community involvement was always taken seriously, and the transition was a natural. By all reports, the parents love him, and Beck is thriving in perhaps his greatest role — giving back.
“Plus, I love working with kids,” says Beck. “It reminds me of those fun times growing up. For me, it’s just a natural part of giving back to the game. There are so many people that help you along the way, and you have to be a mentor to the younger players.”
Beck recounts a mentoring moment in his youth, that changed his life forever. His grandfather took him to his first game in Vancouver, a WHL game that pitted the Canucks against the Los Angeles Blades.
“They had a player named Howie Young — he had tape over his nose, and two black eyes, and during the game the fans were yelling at Young, they hated this guy.
“I asked my grandfather, why don’t they like this guy, and he said, ‘Maybe some of these guys consider him a dirty player.’ I told my grandfather, ‘Yeah … I wanna be like him, everybody yelling at you.’
“It sort of made a big impression on me. Even with black eyes and tape over his nose, and he’s still playing, I sort of admired that.”
Howie Young would go on to polish a reputation as a bad boy of record for several teams — Beck, too, would fulfill his dream.
It was circa 1979, and the Rangers, an original six NHL team, desperately needed depth on defense. In a controversial move, they would ship five players to Colorado, a struggling expansion team, for Beck — who went from a no-pressure situation to one of the biggest, meanest NHL fish bowls on the planet.
“It was a tough transition for me to make, going to a new team,” he admits now. “When I played in Colorado, there was never any pressure on me, then all of a sudden, going into Madison Square Garden.
“You have to understand that whole culture — playing against Philly, the Islanders, Boston — when you play in the east, there’s a whole east coast mentality … tougher … the fans just wanna kill you. Didn’t even matter if it was in your home rink, they just wanted to win.”
Former teammate John Davidson, a goalie with the Rangers and now president of hockey operations with Columbus Blue Jackets, remembers it well.
“He was brought over after we’d gone to the finals in ’79, and lost to Montreal in five games,” says Davidson. “He was a big, strong — oh, man, was he strong — very well-conditioned defenceman. Skated well, good shot. He was asked to do a lot for a young guy.
“I remember our camp was on the boardwalk in Rye, N.Y., the one used by Tom Hanks in the movie Big. Remember Hanks dancing on the piano, that was in an area called Playland. Well, Barry would bring in these people and get us to do a whole bunch of things — yoga, stretching. He was really into that stuff.
“And he was one of those guys who loved living in Manhattan, enjoying that part of life. He had his share of injuries, no question about that,” Davidson added, referring to a recurring shoulder injury. “Good teammate, nice fella. But, as I said, he had a lot heaped on his shoulders when he got there, for sure.”
Part of that burden was Beck’s role as an enforcer, in an era when every team featured a veritable FBI wanted list of thugs.
“Every team had two guys [fighters],” said Beck, “but Boston and Philly — they had four or five guys. There wasn’t a lot of guys getting [a] good [nights] sleep before the game.
“When you thought about it — you’re playing in front of 20,000 people, and you know you have to fight the guy — most guys are going to be nervous about it. You wouldn’t sleep till after the game,” he added.
While no player from China has yet made that epic jump to the next level, he believes that a breakthrough player could change things — drastically.
“In China they really need a player to step up and play in the NHL, the way it opened up for basketball in China when Yao Ming first came on the scene. He was a hero in China and still is because he was able to make that jump from growing up in China, and not speaking any English, to going over to the US and becoming a favorite of fans and a great player,” he said.
“They need someone to do that for hockey also. Until you really have that, your program may not have the validity that other programs have.”
It’s also a question of identity, says Beck. Hong Kong has to step up, be noticed, as a sports community.
“We have to adapt here — for a lot of kids, it’s still an activity, and we don’t see them four or five times a week. This is the whole thing about Hong Kong, its identity is that of a major financial center in the world, it doesn’t have a sports identity. They play lots of soccer, things like that, but they don’t have a real identity, they’re still searching for that,” he said.
Beck has no issues with his identity or his past. He enjoys today’s game, as much as his era in the NHL — which was as much about talent as it was about intimidation — and dismisses comparisons of then and now, citing the fact that there were players then, who probably could have played today’s game, and vice versa.
“Nowadays, you can’t line up behind some guy making $10 million a year, and say, ‘You touch the puck tonight, and I’ll kill you’ … you could do it, but that other guy making the $10 million will just laugh at you,” says Beck, knowing full well, those days are gone.
Perhaps the biggest change, he says, is the nature of sports entertainment today.
“It’s not only happening inside the rink. It’s outside too,” said Beck, pointing to the thrilling Stanley Cup runs by Winnipeg Jets and Las Vegas Knights. “The music, the entertainment, bars … some people don’t even want to go in … the formula for teams has changed.”
And so too, has Barry Beck.