China native Zhang has skated 2 years for the Saint Viator JV
By Ross Forman – He started playing hockey at age 6, but knew it wouldn’t be easy to continue playing in high school. Jingwen Zhang, you see, was born and raised in China and many players there have no high school hockey options due to lack of teams, competition, and limited time due to increased studying.
Zhang knew America would be an option.
So, when a friend in China, who also was a teammate, was coming to America in 2018, Zhang came with him – and they both played for the Highland Park Falcons during the 2018-19 season.
Zhang, 16, who lives with a billet family in Des Plaines, is now a sophomore at Saint Viator and a second-year player for the Lions’ JV. He has played forward and defense, and boasts that he is a defensive-minded player who is offensive-focused. Zhang’s skating is his strength, and he brings good puck protection and speed to Saint Viator.
And a world of joy, literally.
Last season during the playoffs, for instance, Zhang averaged one point per game. He skated on the Lions’ top line along with two seniors. “All my teammates would cheer so loudly when I scored or assisted. I believe this has been one of the proudest moments in my life,” Zhang said.
Zhang, who credits his family for their unwavering support of his hockey life, was trained in China by the Sunshine Zero Ice Hockey Club. “The coaches are former Chinese National Team members and their strict training early in my career laid a good foundation for me,” he said. “When I started playing, hockey was just emerging in China. As the sport grew in popularity all over the country every year, it made me want to work harder and be a part of the growth.
“When I started playing, ice hockey was a minority sport in China and not so popular. Despite the small following and hockey player population, we had good players and coaches. Today, hockey has gained a great following. KHL and NHL games are on television quite often, and the upcoming Winter Olympics have the Chinese government trying to increase hockey’s newfound popularity even more. Many big cities have built ice rinks, clubs, club leagues and inter-school leagues.”
But at Saint Viator, Zhang has found a welcoming family, and “they treat me like any other family member,” he said.
Zhang, who is an only child, communicates regularly with family and friends back home in China, including his parents. He has only spoken English for about 4 ½ years. He spent an intense 2 years studying English in China, and his friends and teammates in America help, too, sort of a real-life classroom session.
“The local high school teams are very competitive and tend to be physical. There are many old rivalries that I am learning. I have had lots of fun playing against other high school teams,” said Zhang, who added that his Illinois high school hockey experience has been “a great challenge, a wonderful experience.”
Zhang said his American journey has included memorable moments off-the-ice, too, such as bonfires and camping in nature. He also likes Chicago’s snow-filled winter … at least for now. “Ask me again about snow in a couple years,” he said, laughing.
Zhang said classes at Viator do have challenges, but he has a simple approach to school: pay attention during class and do the homework. “I always ask teachers questions, share my thinking, opinions, am curious, and discuss where and why I was wrong,” he said.
To help his hockey, including rule knowledge and to gain a deeper understanding of the game, Zhang also has registered to officiate local games.
**Photos Courtesy of Nanette Palmer**
Slapshots With … Saint Viator Sophomore Jingwen Zhang
Uniform: “I wear No. 83 because my birthday is August 3rd (8/3).”
Missing: “I definitely miss the food and my friends. Food, especially HotPot, (which is) a spicy broth boiled at the table with meats and vegetables. I also miss the traditional Chinese festivals with all my relatives gathering.”
College Plans: “I want to go to a good college and try my best to get scholarships. Mathematics and business management are my favorite fields. I’d love to play collegiate hockey as well.”
Sporting: Enjoy golf, snowboarding basketball and soccer.
Hobbies: ” I am a big fan of Chinese board games. My Chinese buddies and I often gather together and play different types of board games.”
Little-Known Fact: “I once met Connor McDavid in Beijing and got his autograph on one of my jerseys. I had to do six push-ups on stage in front of a large audience for it.”
Favorite NHL Team: Chicago Blackhawks
Favorite NHL Player: Connor McDavid
Favorite Sports-Themed Movie: Coach Carter
Favorite Pre-Game Meal: Chick-fil-a
Celebrity You’d Like To Meet: Jackie Chan
Best Hockey Tip: “Use your speed and enjoy your games.” – His dad
Teammate Who You Could See As A Hockey Coach: Connor Jones
Hardest Slapshot On Your Team: Seth Rosland
Most Accurate Shot: Sean Nutley
Fastest Skater: “Probably me.”
Best High School Uniforms (other than Viator): Glenbrook North
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.