The strange journey of the Chinese Olympic hockey team

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Shanghai (AFP) – China’s men’s hockey team was lined up like lambs for the slaughter for NHL stars and was nearly kicked out of its own Olympics. Now, against all hope, they just might not get thrown off the ice.

Even before the puck is dropped at center ice in Beijing next week, the mixed team of Chinese and foreign-born players will have already experienced Olympic-level ups and downs on one of the courses. weirdest team moves to games.

The latest twist came last month when the National Hockey League (NHL) said its players would skip Beijing due to pandemic concerns, sparing China potential home humiliation – the hosts are grouped with Canada, the USA and 2018 silver medalists Germany.

Beijing National Indoor Stadium to host hockey matches at 2022 Games Noel Celis AFP/File

It’s a loss for the Olympics but a boon for the Chinese team on their Games debut, said Li Longmou, a hockey commentator who will call the games for state broadcaster CCTV.

“It’s good for the Chinese team because they could get better results,” Li said.

‘Will they finally win?’

Winter sports are in their infancy in China and hockey has been starved of public investment compared to soccer and basketball, Li said.

When Beijing hosted the Games in 2015, Chinese sports officials realized they were embarrassed at one of the showpiece events.

Thus, a professional team was created to participate in the Continental Hockey League, the top professional competition in Russia and widely considered the second best in the world after the NHL, to serve as a kind of training camp for national players. .

China bolstered the team, called Kunlun Red Star, with Chinese-Canadian and American players, some of whom had played sparingly in the NHL or other professional leagues.

Many are expected to adjust to Beijing via undisclosed citizenship agreements with China.

But things didn’t go so well with Kunlun Red Star.

The team has never posted a winning record since its debut in 2016, finishing each season at or near the bottom of the league.

As the KHL season comes to a halt for the Olympics, Red Star’s record is a dismal 9-39.

“Will Red Star finally get a win?” asked the league’s website in a desperate headline.

‘Not good for hockey’

The dismal performance nearly put China’s Olympic dreams on ice.

People play ice hockey on a frozen canal at Beijing's Olympic Park
People play ice hockey on a frozen canal at Beijing’s Olympic Park Noël CelisAFP

The governing body of the International Ice Hockey Federation said in late September that China, ranked 32nd in the world, were so bad they could be kicked out of Beijing despite the automatic spot usually given to the hosts.

“Seeing a team beaten 15-0 is not good for anyone, neither for China nor for ice hockey,” IIHF President Luc Tardif told AFP in an interview.

The team had until October to prove their mettle but didn’t really dazzle, posting two wins, nine losses and ending the month with an 8-0 thrashing at the hands of another losing team.

However, the IIHF announced soon after that China could take the ice in Beijing.

More good news came in December with the news that Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin and other NHL luminaries would be out.

“It changes things dramatically,” said Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based Chinese sports analyst.

China will still struggle to win a game “but the scores won’t be as bad as people predicted,” he said.

The team and individual players did not respond to AFP requests for comment.

China said it hopes the Beijing Games will fuel the growth of all winter sports in the country, and Li said a decent performance in the rink could do a lot for hockey.

“For some (Chinese), how much they love a sport is determined by the performance of the national team in the Winter Olympics.”

A better Chinese performance could mean “more media attention and more sports fans might start liking ice hockey,” Li said.

‘Good direction’

Still, hockey faces longer-term hurdles in China.

Li estimates that there are only around 5,000 young people playing regularly in this huge country.

Dreyer said the NHL is “missing a huge opportunity” to promote hockey in China’s untapped market, having invested far less than other foreign sports leagues.

Without the luxury of an automatic berth in the future, it’s hard to say when China might qualify for the Olympics.

But Dreyer says a noticeably larger number of Chinese are getting into the sport, at least in the capital.

“The growth of ice hockey in China is definitely going in the right direction,” he said.

“There’s a lot of good organic growth.”

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