2018/19 Landmarks: Made in China

27 March 2019

Kunlun Red Star is a unique club. While every organization is, to some extent, an ambassador for the sport, no other outfit at this level is taking on the responsibility of turbo-charging a national hockey program with a view to Olympic competition in the immediate future. As a result, it’s vital that our Dragons include plenty of home-grown talent – and the season just finished brought some exciting new developments on that score.

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First goals

The season saw four of our Chinese players get their first ever KHL goals. Greg Squires, Brayden Jaw and Chris Seto represented our Chinese heritage players, while Rudi Ying made a little piece of history with the first goal in the KHL scored by a player born in China.

Of that quartet, Squires was the first to strike. The season was just four games old when we went to Magnitogorsk. Squires grabbed a consolation goal midway through the second period as Red Star looked to battle back from three unanswered goals – two of them involving future signing Wojtek Wolski – in the opening session. Greg, who joined the club last season after spells in Germany and Sweden, also found the net on two further occasions, in October’s 3-2 win at Admiral and in a shoot-out loss to Salavat Yulaev on Jan. 22.

Brayden Jaw, meanwhile, picked a memorable occasion to open his KHL account. He grabbed the opening goal in October’s 3-0 victory at home to defending champion Ak Bars – assisted by Squires – to add his name to the list of Chinese heritage players scoring for the club.

The New Year brought another new name for that list: Chris Seto. The 21-year-old has been steadily honing his skills in the Red Star system and silenced a raucous crowd in Ufa when his third-minute goal tied our game with Salavat Yulaev at 1-1. That was part of a roller-coaster game, with Kunlun leading twice before slipping to a 4-7 reverse. For Seto, an unforgettable moment and a taste of what the youngster can achieve if he continues his recent progress.

The last of these goals, scored by Rudi Ying in a 6-3 win over Admiral, was a little bit different. The 20-year-old was born in Beijing and began playing the game in the Chinese capital; his goal came as Red Star returned to the city both player and team call home. From the start of the campaign to the very end, the emergence of Chinese players as contributors in big-league hockey reinforces what the Red Star project is all about – it’s not enough to pull out the chequebook and assemble a roster of established players looking for a payday and a stroll through one of hockey’s more exotic outposts. It’s vital to see these getting the chance to make the step up and hone their skills ahead of the Olympian tests coming in the next few seasons.

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Rising Sun

In similar vein, the rise of Sun Zehao is a cause for celebration. The 23-year-old goalie from the hockey heartland of Harbin in Northern China became the KHL’s first ever Chinese-born netminder when he took to the ice in the second period of January’s home game against Lokomotiv. True, it wasn’t the most favorable situation in which to make a debut: Red Star was struggling and starting goalie Tomi Karhunen had been chased from the ice with the scoreline reading 0-3 at the end of the first period. But Sun let nobody down and was rewarded with a second appearance late in the season when he replaced Alexander Lazushin for the third period of a defeat at Amur. Again, Sun arrived in an impossible situation with Red Star down 1-5; again, he produced a creditable performance in adversity and will surely use that experience to China’s advantage next month when the national team heads to Belgrade in search of promotion from IIHF World Championship Division IIA.

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Nine out of 10

KHL rules require non-Russian teams to select at least 10 players eligible to represent either Russia or the nation in which the team plays. At the end of last season, when Red Star returned to Beijing, Curt Fraser was able to name nine Chinese or Chinese-heritage players on that roster – the biggest-ever contribution from our local talent. And it was no token gesture in an end-of-season game: our Sino-roster achieved a 6-3 victory against Admiral before taking Chernyshev Division top dog Barys to a shoot-out.

The nine players were defensemen Mikael Tam, Victor Bartley and Zach Yuen plus forwards Brandon Yip, Chris Seto, Luke Lockhart, Greg Squires, Hu Yang and Rudi Ying. Together, they bring a mix of top-level experience – Yip and Bartley have been involved in the NHL and AHL – and raw potential. Some, such as Ying, Hu and Seto, are very much learning the game. At the end of the campaign, head coach Curt Fraser briefly assessed their contribution and prospects as Beijing looks to build a national roster for the 2022 Olympics.

“Lockhart is a real warrior, a real grafter. He gets through a colossal amount of work on the PK, at the face off, blocking shots. Greg Squires is a quick, skilled player in great physical shape. He’s the engine of his line, the kind of player who often sets the pace of the game.

“Zach Yuen has proved himself as a real all-rounder, comfortable on offense or defense. But he – and us, his coaches – need to decide which is his best role. Mikael Tam is just a monster! Strong, powerful, aggressive and, most important, he’s making great progress all the time. In time he can become a real player.

“Victor Bartley brings huge experience. He’s played in the AHL, he’s trained with the NHL and he can become a mentor to our young Chinese players, passing on the things he’s learned.

“It’s hard to put into words how important Brandon Yip is to the team. He’s our best player, a real captain and a leader on and off the ice – that says it all.

“Chris Seto is a really talented guy with great skills and the ability to pull some classy moves. Now he needs to add consistency to his game. I only saw Rudi Ying and Hu Yang before our closing games of the season and wanted to give them some meaningful minutes. It’s hard to say at the moment, but they both have real potential. They need to keep up the hard work and learn from their colleagues.”

In addition, players like Cory Kane, Josh Nicholls and Brayden Jaw featured during the regular season, although their opportunities were hampered by the rash of injuries that hit the club. And two more local youngsters, goalie Derek Dan and forward Qianyi Huang spent some time on the bench in the KHL, giving them a taste of the atmosphere and attitude that characterizes life in the big league. All the evidence suggests that the Dragons are building a solid Chinese foundation – and the next stage of this country’s hockey adventure promises to be even more exciting.

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