Homeward bound

6 March 2023

Dragons on the way back to Beijing, with a stop-off in Tallinn

We’ve talked about it for the past few weeks, and now we’ve heard it from the top. The Dragons are heading home to Beijing for the coming season.

At the club’s post-season press conference, held over the weekend, club vice-president Nikolai Feoktistov was buoyant about the prospect of getting back to China after three years in exile.

“Our task is to start the new season in China,” Feoktistov said. “Most of the anti-Covid restrictions in the country have been lifted. Most importantly, you can now travel to China without a PCR test, without a two-week quarantine. Very soon, we expect to see an end to any restrictions on staging international sporting events.

“Of course, we are keeping our options open because it’s a complicated process and things might not work out as we hope. But we are putting everything we can into moving back to Beijing this summer.

“We have a few options for our home arena. We’d like to use the Olympic arena, but right now we’re going through the negotiations. We did all this back in 2016 and now we need to do it again.

“In principle, it’s all possible. And we believe that nothing will stop us from starting the season in China.”

Progress despite pre-season disruption

Feoktistov admitted that the Dragons had wanted to start the just-completed 2022/23 campaign in Beijing, but this proved unworkable due to the prolongation of China’s anti-Covid measures. That, in turn, added to the challenges facing the playing staff in the build-up to the season.

Head coach Greg Ireland was in charge of meeting those challenges – and he believes that despite the difficulties there were many positives from the season.

“It was a great challenge, but in a good way,” said our ever-upbeat leader. “We had a late start due to reasons outside of our control. We came together as a team in late August and that put us behind a lot of the teams in Russia.

“But I think we did a great job from late August through December of catching up.

“As we started to add a few players you could see how the competitiveness of our players and the competitiveness of our team grew. Our systems and discipline got better. We competed most nights. We had some great victories; we had some very close games. In the end, there were a lot of third periods where the game was lost to us but we were competitive those nights. The team showed great growth and development and we are very proud of that.”

Another source of pride was the development of the Dragons’ special teams. Both the penalty kill and power play improved steadily throughout the season and, at times, the latter was among the top seven or eight in the league. Not bad, considering the lack of pre-season preparation and constantly changing personnel.

Moreover, Ireland took great satisfaction from seeing several players produce best-ever seasons – and not just in terms of stand-out stats like Brandon Yip’s club scoring record.

“I think one of the things that really stood out was that we had a great number of players achieve career years,” he said. “Players’ games went up, not in terms of stats but in terms of their overall game and their play, their competitiveness.

“Those are the things you want to see in the group. It shows an interest and engagement, it shows players that care. That’s what shows good development, the strength of the group and its character.”

Looking ahead to Tallinn

From the management side, Feoktistov acknowledged the difficulties in building the team for this season.

“It was tough building a team for this season, many imports were reluctant to come,” he added. “We had to spend a lot of time agreeing on contracts. That’s the main reason why we couldn’t get together until later than the rest of the KHL. Even so, this season was more successful than last. There were times when we had a good chance of making the playoffs, which was our original aim. Sure, after last season’s difficult Olympic campaign some guys did not play quite as well as we expected. But some bright new players arrived, guys who will continue working within the framework of the Chinese National Team.”

That national team forms the next task for coach Ireland and his players. China is off to Tallinn, Estonia, to contest Division IB of the IIHF competition. Gold beside the Baltic would put the People’s Republic into the second tier of international play, just one level below the like of Canada, the USA, Olympic champion Finland etc.

“Our plans now turn, as they have probably for the  last 10-15 games of the season, towards the World Championship for the Chinese national team,” Ireland said. “Our focus is getting ready having the players get a little bit of rest but not lose too much edge and conditioning and prepare for the Worlds.”

That World Championship tournament begins on April 23 with China starting its promotion bid against Ukraine. Then come games against last year’s silver medallist Japan, a Dutch team promoted with us from Division IIA last season and Serbia. The tournament concludes on April 29 with China finishing against host nation Estonia.

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