20 August 2021
Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk 5 Kunlun Red Star 2
Remember this date. August 20, 2021. It’s the day your Dragons iced a roster comprised entirely of players eligible to represent Team China at next year’s Olympics. A flurry of signings over the past week added a host of Chinese-born players to the roster, and they formed the bulk of tonight’s line-up for an exhibition game in Neftekhimik. The team was bolstered, as usual, by a clutch of Chinese heritage players who are hoping to be available for international action in February – the likes of Luke Lockhart, the Foo brothers, Ethan Werek, Vic Bartley, Jason Fram, Mikael Tam, Colin Joe and young goalie Paris O’Brien all took part.
But tonight’s focus was very much on our local contingent, many of whom were making their debut for the first team – or returning to the Dragons’ lair after spells in the organization’s development program.
So, who are they? The goaltending duo comprised O’Brien, a 21-year-old heritage player from Vancouver with huge potential. He joined the club as a raw 18-year-old and steadily accumulated experience in the Junior Hockey League (MHL) and the VHL before getting his chance on the first team this season. Back-up came from Han Pengfei, 30, part of Team China’s roster in its last World Championship appearance in 2019 (the pandemic, sadly, has scuppered our national team’s chances of meaningful action since then).
On defense, Zhang Pengfei, Yan Ruinan and Chen Zimeng all featured. Chen, 24, is a Beijing native with extensive junior experience in North America and international caps for China from 2019. Zhang first joined the Dragons in 2017 and has three seasons in the system playing in the MHL and VHL. He’s also represented China as a U18, U20 and full international and in 2018 achieved the rare feat of competing for his country at all three levels.
Among the forwards we had two full lines of home-grown talent, plus Beijing born Zhong Wei, who has played the bulk of his career in the USA. Of the new signings, Ying Rudi is perhaps the best known: he scored the first ever goal by a Chinese-born player in the KHL. Today, he centered the fourth line, accompanied by Guo Jianing and Xiang Xudong. Guo was a key player for China at U18 and U20 level and also captained our juniors. Watching his progress into the adult game promises to bring plenty of excitement. Xiang, meanwhile, played two seasons in the VHL with us, but since 2018 has been with the China Golden Dragon team that took part in the Czech championship.
The third line was also homemade. Zhang Zesen, 24, has 139 VHL appearances across three seasons in the KRS family and is a stalwart of China’s national team. On the other wing, power forward Zhang Cheng made his KRS debut after playing the bulk of his career to date in the Asia League. The 26-year-old began his career with Qiqihar in the domestic league and has played in seven World Championship campaigns for his country. They were centered by Yan Juncheng, a 20-year-old dual national who captained China’s juniors in 2020 and put up an impressive 11 (5+6) points in five games in World Championship IIB.
Against a team of established KHL players, this was always going to be a big ask for a team learning its trade. However, our young Chinese team let nobody down and even enjoyed a memorable moment at the start of the third period when Yang Hu got a deft touch to a lofted feed from Zhong Wei and steered the puck beyond Yaroslav Ozolin for our first goal of the game. Later, we saw what a bit of KHL experience can do on the power play when Lockhart smashed home a pass from Ethan Werek. It wasn’t enough to overcome a hat-trick from Pavel Poryadin at the other end, but this game was always about far more than the box scores.
And the impressive thing is that there is more to come. Friday’s roster was missing several long-established dual-national players: no Brandon Yip, no Tyler Wong, no Zach Yuen, no Nicholls, Riche, Seto or Squires. That’s a lot of experience and talent in reserve to add some depth to a roster starting to take shape in advance of the greatest challenge of China’s hockey history. Remember the date … and remember the names. We’ll be hearing a lot more about them in the coming months.