In the summer of 2015, the future of ice hockey in China looked promising.
The country had just won the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing—a major coup for a nation not traditionally known for its winter sports prowess. And that June, Beijing-born Song Andong, a bright-eyed 18-year-old ambassador for the Chinese Olympic Committee, had become the first-ever Chinese player to be drafted into the U.S.’s National Hockey League (NHL).
In the months that followed, China embarked on a monumental push to expand the sport and develop an Olympics-worthy men’s ice hockey team by building ice rinks, promoting youth leagues, and hiring top foreign coaches. China even enlisted the help of the NHL to nurture a new generation of ice hockey fans in the country.
China’s Olympic organizers refitted two stadiums in downtown Beijing—the national indoor stadium and the Wukesong Sports Center, both of which were built for the 2008 Summer Games—to become the main venues for the Winter Games’ ice hockey events. The organizers flew in foreign ice rink experts to ensure the ice was just right—smoother, harder and colder than regular rinks and suitable for professional-level play.
But now, with the Beijing Winter Games only two months away, there’s a major hitch: the China men’s ice hockey team may not ever step a skate onto the Olympic ice. On Monday, hockey’s international governing body, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), will decide whether or not to ban China’s national team from Olympic play due to “insufficient sporting standard.”
“Watching a team being beaten 15-0 is not good for anyone, not for China or for ice hockey,” then-IIHF president Luc Tardif told AFP in September.
In short, the team is potentially too bad to compete.
Ranked No. 32 in the world, Team China would be up against three of the world’s top hockey squads, Canada, USA, and Germany, ranked No. 1, No. 4 and No. 5, respectively, in the first round alone. The hockey world’s No. 11 Norway is waiting in the wings should the IIHF deem China ineligible to play.
Since 2006, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has granted host nations an automatic bid for all events. A ban on China’s team would be the first of its kind and an embarrassing outcome for a country that has spent millions trying to make itself into an ice hockey powerhouse.
Nurturing a new, national sport
Ice hockey has faced an uphill battle in China. It has higher barriers to entry than more popular sports like basketball and soccer because equipment is expensive and rinks are difficult to access. In 2015, the country of 1.4 billion had 200 indoor rinks. Chinese parents consider hockey more dangerous than other sports, a deterrent to signing their kids up to play.
Ice hockey has also suffered from a lack of exposure in the mainland. In China, basketball and soccer matches have aired on Chinese television for decades.
“The older generations were exposed to these sports in their youth,” says Michael Lin, senior business director at Shanghai-headquartered Mailman, a digital sports consultancy that counts the NHL as a client. Chinese stars like former NBA Houston Rockets center Yao Ming in the 2000s and footballer Wu Lei, who in 2006 became the youngest player in the Chinese Super League at age 14, served as emissaries of their sports. Television audiences ballooned and fans took up play themselves.
Hockey, meanwhile, has never had a bona fide Chinese star.
Still, Beijing’s successful bid to host the 2022 Winter Games in 2015 sparked an urgent push to turn the country into a legitimate men’s ice hockey contender. Beijing’s city government led the charge, developing ice hockey programs and building infrastructure to attract new fans to the sport. Olympic organizers also attached a face to the campaign: Song, who had been drafted by the New York Islanders but had yet to play an NHL game. China had sent him to Malaysia in 2015 to support Beijing’s 2022 bid.
In 2017, the NHL entered the Chinese market for the first time, working with domestic partners to promote the sport by bringing NHL players and coaches to China for exhibition games and training camps and ramping up the NHL’s social media presence.
In some regards, the effort worked. In the past six years, China has built 337 new indoor ice rinks. The number of hockey players—defined as youth, male and female athletes playing in IIHF-registered leagues—has soared to nearly 10,000 this year, up from 540 in 2010. China now has 32 youth ice hockey clubs, an eightfold increase from 2012. The sport has emerged alongside polo, golf, and horseback riding as a niche and trendy pastime for Beijing’s elite.
A Chinese Olympic team stacked with foreigners
But China has failed miserably in its goal of building an Olympic-caliber hockey team. The pursuit was probably doomed from the start. China tried to pull off the feat in six years; it needed at minimum two decades, says Mark Simon, an international hockey consultant who worked in Beijing and Shanghai for 14 years.
Building a robust ice hockey ecosystem capable of fielding a competitive national team begins with “credible youth leagues. It starts with the kids, all the way up to junior hockey, semi-professional and so on,” says Greg Smyth, co-founder and director of China Hockey Group.
Instead of grooming young talent earlier on, China tried to build a hockey program from the top down.
In 2017, the Chinese Ice Hockey Association (CIHA), which oversees the Chinese national team, launched a global recruitment drive for athletes to train and play in China in hopes of bolstering the men’s Olympic team. The only requirements for foreign players? Hockey skills and some Chinese heritage.
The recruitment campaign succeeded in bringing foreign players to China. As of Dec. 1, the roster of the Kunlun Red Star—the Chinese hockey club that plays in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as a proxy for China’s national men’s team—had only two China-born players. The rest of the roster is stacked with international athletes: four Americans, four Russians, and 17 Canadians.
But the Red Star suffered from years of mismanagement and cycled through staff, hurting the morale and caliber of the team. In August 2020, three Red Star coaches sued the club for $1 million in overdue compensation. In an interview with ESPN at the time, the coaches added that “many” players had been asked to take pay cuts of up to 50%. Management’s treatment of the staff and players stung. “We had a really good group. Everyone was committed to… building toward the Olympics for all of these players. Then all of the sudden it came to a grinding halt,” said former head coach Curt Fraser. “These kids… were great kids, working their tails off to help hockey in China, and help put a team on the ice for the Olympics.”
The outbreak of the pandemic hindered the Red Star team too. Originally Beijing-based, the hockey club relocated to Moscow, Russia when COVID hit. By the end of the 2020 KHL season last May, the athletes were “worn down from so much traveling… and different timezones,” Tyler Wong, a forward for the Red Star, told the Calgary Sun. “Our play was definitely affected. It was really hard for us to keep up a high level of hockey.”
This season, the Red Star is the second-worst team in the KHL—ranked No. 23 out of 24 teams. It has won nine games and lost 25 out of 34 matches played. The club has scored 73 goals but allowed 128.
The players also missed out on crucial overseas training camps in North America and Europe due to pandemic travel restrictions. China only sent the team to a five-month training program in Russia in August, just six months prior to the Winter Games.
Even worse, there’s no guarantee that Red Star’s foreign players can join Team China at the Games. China has strict nationality rules and the government doesn’t recognize dual citizenship. If a foreign player wants to represent China in February, he will have to temporarily waive his current citizenship for a Chinese passport. Along with evaluating Team China’s performance, the IIHF is reviewing which players are eligible to play for the national team.
A similar situation occurred in the lead-up to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games. The South Korean home team had recruited Canadian and other foreign-born athletes to represent the country. The South Korean government also doesn’t recognize dual citizenship, but it made an exception for “talented” individuals, meaning non-Korean players could join the 2018 Olympic team. The loophole helped South Korea put on a better-than-expected performance in hockey, boosting the sport’s popularity in the country, says Smyth.
Team South Korea was helped by another crucial factor: the absence of NHL players at the 2018 Games. Since 2014, the NHL had prohibited its players from competing in the Olympics because it would interrupt the league’s season and increase players’ chances for injuries.
Team China doesn’t have that kind of luck. This September, NHL players and the league reached an agreement to allow NHL athletes to compete at the Olympics in 2022. Most of the players currently eligible for the Chinese national team have never played in the NHL; the few who have only served brief stints. Red Star captain Brandon Yip, a Canadian, was an 8th round NHL draft pick in 2004 and played a total of five seasons in the league, the most recent in 2014.
Song, now 24, is not on the team. The one-time face of hockey in China never logged a single game in the NHL and no longer plays the sport professionally.
Allowing Team China to face off against the NHL’s best would be a “massive mistake for those that care about growing hockey in China,” says Simon. He worries that Chinese fans watching the matches will see that the Chinese team isn’t up to par and ultimately lose interest in the game. A ban, he says, would save the team from embarrassment. The “worst thing in the world,” he says, would be to watch a blowout.
Ivan Zanatta, the newly appointed head coach of Team China who’s from Italy, told state newspaper China Daily in August that the team is focused on “realistic” goals, rather than winning gold. The “main objective is to gain the world’s respect. That’s a lot.”
The team may not even get that chance.
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