Five months before Beijing 2022, China’s ice hockey team to rely on naturalized North Americans to be competitive

China will be the lowest-ranked team, by far, to have ever participated at an Olympic Games. But the IIHF believes momentum from the Games will help kickstart the development of ice hockey in the country.

Athletes take part in an ice hockey competition with spectators in seats, which is held as a test event for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, inside the Wukesong Sports Centre, in Beijing, China April 4, 2021. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
Athletes take part in an ice hockey competition with spectators in seats, which is held as a test event for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, inside the Wukesong Sports Centre, in Beijing, China April 4, 2021. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

2022 Winter Olympic host China has never had a competitive men’s ice hockey team on the international stage but is in the process of assembling a roster of players from overseas to avoid embarrassment at its home Games in Beijing.

China has recruited around 20 North American players of Chinese descent in the past few years to play in the country, with the goal of naturalizing them as citizens in time for the Beijing Olympics. International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) rules allow foreign-born players to represent a new country after two years in a local club.

However, the IIHF has asserted that rumors of the governing body further relaxing its eligibility rules so China can draft in additional foreign players are untrue.

“If [players] get Chinese citizenship and fulfill the IIHF’s eligibility criteria for players with multiple citizenships as set in the IIHF Statutes & Bylaws... they can play for the Chinese men’s/women’s national teams and the rules are the same for all countries. However, these rules are set in the IIHF Statutes & Bylaws and there haven’t been any plans to change these”, an IIHF spokesperson tells Around the Rings.

The poor quality of Chinese ice hockey has posed a problem for the IIHF and Olympic officials ahead of the Games in 2022, who seek to avoid China losing by double digits in every match. While China’s women’s team is reasonably competitive internationally, the men’s team is globally ranked 32nd between Spain and Australia, making it near impossible for them to compete alongside the world’s top national hockey sides stacked with NHL players.

China has not played a competitive fixture in two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but in its most recent outing at the 2019 IIHF Division IIA tournament – the fourth highest level of international ice hockey – China’s team lost four matches against fellow minnows Australia, Croatia, Serbia and Spain, only recording one win against bottom-ranked Belgium.

Ice hockey players take part in a competition held as a test event for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, inside the National Indoor Stadium in Beijing, China April 2, 2021. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
Ice hockey players take part in a competition held as a test event for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, inside the National Indoor Stadium in Beijing, China April 2, 2021. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

The last time China faced top-level opposition was at the 2017 Asian Winter Games, where it was defeated 8-0 by Kazakhstan, which had come in 16th and last at the World Championships the previous year, and 11-0 by South Korea, the last-place finisher at the 2018 Olympics.

Despite concerns surrounding performance, the IIHF decided in 2018 to give China’s ice hockey teams automatic host entries for the 2022 Olympic tournaments, citing precedent from past Olympic Games where the host nation always earned a place even if their team was not among the best in the world.

“At the IIHF we believe that if feasible the host should have a team in both the men’s and women’s Olympic ice hockey tournament… In the last decades it was the same in Nagano 1998, Turin 2006 and PyeongChang 2018 where the teams from the host nations got an automatic entry despite being ranked outside the top-12 ice hockey nations. Applying the same principle in Beijing 2022 means that this is nothing new”, the IIHF spokesman explained.

China will nonetheless be the lowest-ranked team, by far, to have ever participated at an Olympic Games. Website China Sport Daily even reported in May that the IIHF was threatening to retract China’s place based on a lack of improvement, though with China taking steps to naturalize most of its players, the IIHF appears to have not followed through on this threat.

According to national outlet China Daily (no relation to China Sport Daily), the men’s squad will be comprised of players from Kunlun Red Star, a Beijing-based team competing in Russia’s prestigious Kontinental Hockey League. Kunlun features several North American players with Chinese heritage who have been explicitly recruited to represent China at the Games. A couple of them, such as Canadian-born forwards Brandon Yip and Victor Bartley, even have experience playing in the NHL.

Eight native Chinese hockey players are also on Kunlun’s roster, and China Daily reported that some home-grown athletes would also be part of the Olympic team. Still, more than two-thirds of the national squad are expected to be North American.

With nearly all of Kunlun’s current players either Chinese themselves or meeting the IIHF’s two-year residency criteria for naturalization, the upcoming Kontinental Hockey League season will be a good early measure of Team China’s competitiveness as Kunlun takes on some of Russia’s best clubs. China’s national team is then scheduled to play some friendly matches against European national sides in December.

Regardless of how China does at the upcoming Olympics, the IIHF believes that momentum from the Games will help kickstart the development of ice hockey in the world’s most populous country. Youth hockey participation in the nation of 1.4 billion has already near-quadrupled over the past two years: from 2,273 junior players in 2019 to 8,147 juniors in 2021.

“We already have seen a bigger number of players registered with new ice rinks opening across the country in recent years. These are mostly young players who can have an impact on the level of play in China in the long run, potentially leading to a future where China could rival the top hockey nations with players developed in the domestic youth hockey system”, the IIHF spokesman said. He added that there are plans to establish a permanent domestic Chinese league in the future.

Two South Korea players take on one Canadian player during 2018 Olympic Games. (COC/Vaughn Ridley)
Two South Korea players take on one Canadian player during 2018 Olympic Games. (COC/Vaughn Ridley)

China’s situation is somewhat reminiscent of South Korea’s at the 2018 Winter Olympics, where the then-host nation, also with a subpar hockey team, brought in seven players from the United States and Canada to bolster its squad. Despite coming in last, the team performed respectably, and Korean hockey authorities say the Olympics have helped increase the game’s popularity three years on – providing a potential roadmap for China to follow.

“We definitely noticed a huge impact [from the 2018 Olympics]. The number of youth hockey players dramatically increased from around 1,000 to 3,000 registered players in the period of 2011 – 2020... Small ice rinks are now everywhere. We can’t count it anymore”, Kwangeun Stine Choi, Sports Manager of the Korea Ice Hockey Association, tells Around the Rings.

Choi further stressed the importance at the time of having naturalized players on Korea’s team, stating: “These players helped a lot for our national team program. Thanks to these players, our game/practice tempo went up and players got confidence… They have volunteered with youth hockey development as well”.

Asked if he had any advice for Chinese ice hockey based on Korea’s 2018 experience, Choi said: “My only advice is [securing] a facility. They have their rink in Beijing... The hockey federation needs to run or manage the rink, not the city or government. Putting all their hockey activities in that facility will make them continue their Olympic legacy now and beyond.”

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