30 January 2022
For the first time in history, China will enter a team in the men’s ice hockey at the Olympics. And, uniquely, the roster comes exclusively from one club – Kunlun Red Star. The Dragons have worked closely with the national program since the club was established, identifying and developing talent with a view to icing a competitive team in Beijing. Now, with the opening game against the USA coming up on Feb. 10, the wait is almost over – it’s showtime.
Ivano Zanatta and the team are already settling into life in the Olympic village and practicing on the ice at the National Indoor Stadium. And it’s a squad that blends local talent with Chinese heritage players, all united in their determination to prove China’s worth on the international stage. While there’s a huge test ahead – prior to the pandemic, China ranked 32nd in the world and now finds itself up against the top 11 nations – there’s also a huge opportunity. And the Olympic roster is constructed with one eye to the future, as we look to ensure that the game continues to grow – both at Kunlun Red Star and in the international arena – long after the closing ceremony in Beijing.
Olympic experience behind the bench
While it’s China’s Olympic debut, there’s plenty of Games know-how on the bench. Back in 1992, head coach Zanatta and his assistant Alexei Kovalev were suiting up at the Albertville games. Zanatta’s Italy was an outsider destined for the placement rounds, while Kovalev’s ‘Unified Team’ of recently independent Soviet republics skated to gold – the last Russians to do so before 2018. They are joined behind the bench by Clayton Beddoes, who kept Italy in the World Championship Elite Pool in 2019.
Although China’s men have never played Olympic hockey before, the sport has some history in the People’s Republic. China joined the IIHF in the 1960s and the game has long been popular in the Heilongjiang region in the north of the country, close to the river Amur and the Russian border. Historically, China’s hockey players have come from the cities of Harbin and Qiqihar, and that’s reflected in the origins of several of the 2022 roster.
Chinese-born talent starts with goalie Han Pengfei. The 30-year-old became the first Chinese goaltender to start a KHL game earlier this season when he made 37 saves to drag Sibir to overtime on Dec. 12.
On defense, three young players represent not just the brightest prospects currently emerging through the KRS pipeline, but also the potential for China’s future beyond the Games. Yan Ruinan, 21, Zhang Pengfei, 23, and 24-year-old Chen Zimeng have all featured throughout the KHL campaign. Yan leads the way with 29 appearances in the big league, and all three have benefitted from the Dragons’ commitment to bringing Chinese players through the ranks. Last season, when the pandemic isolated our China-based players from the rest of the team, they were training on their own program in Beijing. This term, happily, they’ve been able to work with coach Zanatta and the first team and each has made huge progress in adjusting to a higher level of hockey, gaining greater ice time as the season progresses.
Among the forwards, we have a mixture of youth and experience. True, the oldest of the Chinese-born players is only 26. However, Xiang Xudong also holds a unique distinction: he’s the only player on the team to have previously featured in any form of Olympic hockey when he suited up for China’s qualification tournament ahead of the 2018 Games. That weekend in Spain was a tough one for the Chinese team, which lost heavily to Serbia, Iceland and the host nation. It’s worth pausing to consider the extent of a sporting journey from a small arena on the outskirts of Madrid to playing front of the eyes of the world at an Olympic Games.
Beijing-born Rudi Ying, 23, is another man with a unique distinction. Back in 2019, he wrote a little piece of history when he became the first Chinese-born player to score in the KHL. This season, he produced a highlight reel goal against Barys, underlining the progress he has made within the KRS system.
Zhang Zesen, 25, has been a frequent part of the Dragons’ KHL line-ups this season and could be among the home-grown players who help to build hockey’s longer term future in China. And we have a pair of 21-year-olds, highlighting the rise of a new generation of Chinese talent. Guo Jianing is a product of the Kunlun program, while Zhong Wei, also known as Peter Zhong, got an early taste of hockey in North America and joined Red Star this season from Arizona University.
Zhong’s journey is similar to that of another 21-year-old forward, Yan Juncheng. Toronto born, Yan has played junior hockey in Canada. But there was never any doubt about his national allegiance: in 2016 he played World Championship hockey for China U18 and by 2020 he was captain of China U20. Swapping the Victoria Grizzlies of the BCHL for Kunlun Red Star and the KHL was the logical next step, and that journey continues to the Olympics.
Yan is just one of a host of heritage players on the team. Zach Yuen, Vancouver born, has the longest history with our club. He was here from day one and in his first season he became the first Chinese player to get a point in the KHL, then to score a goal (a game-winner, no less, in a 1-0 win over Amur). Now 28, the former Toronto Marlie has had his injury problems and has, at times, perhaps been a victim of his versatility as he switched between offense and defense. Now, though, he’s an established part of the D-core.
That defense includes two other heritage players, Jason Fram and Zhang Enlai. The latter is perhaps better known as Ty Schultz but is using his Chinese name while representing his country. Goalie Paris O’Brien, 21, has also stepped up this term and is making a name for himself in the KHL. All have come through the Red Star ranks and made their Olympic dreams come true thanks to their respect for their ancestry.
Among the forwards, Brandon Yip stands out. There are few franchise records that our club captain has not secured in his 206 games for the Dragons – 112 (58+54) points leads the way in team scoring. The 36-year-old winger’s influence goes far beyond the ice, though. As a passionate advocate for Chinese hockey, Yip is playing an enormous role in helping to raise the sport’s profile and inspire future players.
Fellow heritage player Luke Lockhart is the only man with more KRS appearances than the captain. Over five seasons on the team, this hard-working center has matured into a fulcrum of the offense. This season, he’s enjoyed an effective partnership with the Foo brothers, Spencer and Parker, on one of Red Star’s most productive lines. Among the other heritage guys, American-born Cory Kane is third for games played on the team and brings vast experience to the table, Tyler Wong’s flair can unlock any defense, while Ethan Werek has been a consistent performer in his three seasons with Red Star.
With a need to build a roster quickly, and with preparations disrupted by the pandemic, the team is rounded out with a few naturalized Chinese players. These include goalie Jeremy Smith, whose hard-working performances in the KHL have seen him make a huge number of saves as our first-choice this season.
On defense, Jake Chelios comes with impeccable hockey heritage – dad Chris is a Hall-of-Famer with a record equalling 26 NHL seasons that brought three Stanley Cups. Jake is a similarly solid defenseman with a big role on our blue line. Alongside him, Ryan Sproul and Denis Osipov have also played long enough in China to qualify for their passports to the national team and they round out the Olympic party.
Everybody knows this is going to be tough. The group stage pits China against Canada and the USA, two undisputed powerhouses of world hockey, plus a German team that went all the way to the final in PyeongChang four years ago. After the group comes a likely qualification round match-up against another long-established hockey nation. Playing at the Olympics is a dream come true for our team, winning would be a genuine ‘miracle on ice’.
Coach Zanatta is aware that the team needs attainable targets. “We told the guys we have to gain the respect of the hockey world,” he told KHL.ru. “We don’t have to put on a show, but we have to gain respect. So we are practising to be the best we can from physical and tactical perspectives.”
Perhaps more important, though, the Games are not the end of the story for Chinese hockey. Beijing 2022 is a huge showcase, and a chance to measure our team against the best. However, this is merely the culmination of chapter one in the Dragons’ hockey story.
Brandon Yip (Captain）