Allan Chan shifts to the edge of his seat in the stands at the Southdale Community Centre arena as his son Brayden races two other players into the corner for the puck.
The snow is gone and regular-season play is long over, but Chan can’t seem to keep his AA-calibre defenceman son off the ice for long.
He’s got the bug, just like his dad, albeit with more opportunity and access to hockey than Chan had when he was Brayden’s age.
“Growing up in the core area with immigrant parents, they were always busy working trying to support the household,” Chan says. “Organized sports — it was just not a part of our culture that I would have the opportunity to play.”
Brayden, 12, started skating when he was two and has been playing organized hockey more than half of his life.
Allan Chan, 45, didn’t join a league until he was in his late teens, but the fascination started years earlier.
When Chan was Brayden’s age, he was invited to a Jets game. Winnipeg won in overtime.
“It was absolutely thrilling, and I just remember, like, wow, that’s something I want to try,” Chan said.
The first-generation Chinese Canadian was born and raised in Winnipeg’s Chinatown and Central Park areas. His parents arrived in the city in the 1970s from Hong Kong.
Growing up, Chan’s father was a chef at Shanghai Restaurant and his mom worked in a noodle factory. Neither were too familiar with hockey when their son started to take an interest.
Some of Chan’s fondest memories are of watching the Stanley Cup playoffs on Hockey Night in Canada with his mom. She didn’t know anything about the teams but “felt the passion and excitement of the sport,” Chan said.
His first hockey memory with his dad is when they took in a Jets game at the old Winnipeg Arena.
“He actually fell asleep during the game,” Chan said.
Then came Chan’s growing urge to get on the ice himself.
But the cost of playing organized hockey was too high for Chan in his early teens in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
LISTEN: Allan Chan fell in love with hockey but couldn’t access it as a kid — how he’s passing the puck to the next generation of Asian-Canadian players:
The Weekend Morning Show (Manitoba)10:50All-Asian hockey team breaking barriers at annual tournament
He and other neighbourhood kids learned to play on the pleasure rink at Central Park: no boards, no nets, just their snow boots doubling as goal posts and a surrounding of highrises full of people they imagined as fans in the stands.
“Growing up … you want to play in the big leagues, and that’s kind of what we created.”
The possibilities opened more in his final years of high school. Chan had a licence, then a job — the means to buy equipment and join a rec league. Then it was a beer league.
Later, in his early 30s, Chan and a couple of friends travelled to Toronto for the Asian Hockey Championships.
“I came back and I thought … that tournament was fantastic. I mean, how awesome would it be to get a whole team from Winnipeg to get down there?”
They did just that in 2011.
By 2013, there were 45 players — enough for three all-Asian Winnipeg teams that played in different levels of the tournament under the banner of the Winnipeg Emperors.
The top-tier Winnipeg team won it all that year. It was a great accomplishment, Chan said, and the Emperors have been going back ever since.
Today, a core group of 15 players of various ages, of Chinese, Korean, Filipino and biracial backgrounds, make up the squad.
“The common bond that everybody has is that they all love to play hockey, and for us it’s our annual trip we make down,” he said.
Two Winnipeg Emperor teams participated again in Toronto during Asian Heritage Month this past May after a two-year pandemic hiatus.
This year was extra special, Chan said, because it was the first time they took five Winnipeg kids, including his son. Brayden and the others laced up with Toronto Asian youth to form one team.
Chan played in one game himself with the adult Emperors squad, but spent most of his time behind the bench coaching the youth team. Both teams put in a strong showing but lost in the semi-finals.
It wasn’t the ending the tweens hoped for, but it was magic nevertheless.
“They got to meet other kids that were similar in culture to them — similar in the way they look and even languages they spoke,” Chan said.
“I think that was the big difference-maker, and they saw other kids that were just like them enjoying the same thing.”
Chan thinks there are still language and cultural barriers keeping some Asians from entering the sport at a young age, particularly newcomers.
That could improve with a more sustained outreach campaign in communities of colour, he said.
The significance of tournaments like the Asian Hockey Championships isn’t lost on 12-year-old Brayden.
“I think hockey is for everybody, and they should include everybody,” Brayden said.
Back on the ice at the end of May — this time at Winnipeg’s Winter Club for another camp — Chan peers over the ice as Brayden hustles for the puck during a drill.
Reflecting on his past, Chan feels proud of his boy and progress in the sport they both love.
“When I was growing up, I felt like I was the only Asian kid playing hockey, and now you go to Toronto and you’re in a full building, full tournament, and the majority of players are all Asian,” he said.
“Hockey has been pushing this message of inclusion and diversity and that [tournament] exemplified it.”
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