the best ice hockey players in the world are set to showcase their talent in the first full campaign post Covid-19.
However over in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, arguably the second best ice hockey league on the planet, a problem continues to boil over for the International Ice Hockey Federation and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
The Kunlun Red Star, a Beijing-based team sit tied for last in the East Division. The team are billed as a showcase of China’s men’s ice hockey prowess as the squad has 21 Chinese nationals including a few who have played in the NHL or were drafted, including Brandon Yip and Zach Yuen. However they have only won four games in 16 matches, and have a goal differential of 39-58.
The squad are supposed to be warming up for the host country’s first-ever appearance in ice hockey at Beijing 2022, but chances are the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) may pull the plug on the team before then to avoid an internationally embarrassing moment.
The NHL will be sending more than 150 players and the tournament will be the greatest showcase of ice hockey talent since 2014 in Sochi, and China finds itself in a group with the two gold medal favourites – Canada and the United States, along with dark horse contenders Germany.
Both teams will be loaded with superstar talent while Germany have one of the best players and goalies in the world – Leon Draistaitl and Philipp Grubauer – and the issue came to a head recently after the election of new IIHF president Luc Tardiff.
Tardiff told Agence France-Presse the Chinese men’s team were at an “insufficient sporting standard”.
“Watching a team being beaten 15-0 is not good for anyone, not for China or for ice hockey,” he added, noting the IIHF will make a decision by the end of this month.
Many NHL pundits think the scores could be much worse in China’s group games and Canada and the US could score dozens of goals during internationally televised games. Last week the NHL Players’ Association asked each of the 12 countries to name three players for their roster and the only team who didn’t was China.
Tardiff hinted that Norway, ranked 11th in the world, could be slotted in place of China, who are ranked 32nd.
Hong Kong’s Barry Beck, who played 615 games in the NHL, and coached Hong Kong’s men’s national team for a number of seasons, said he has heard some intel about the squad, and it doesn’t look promising.
“I know they have some guys that can skate,” said Beck. “However their defence is a big issue, and that will cause them a lot of problems against NHL players surely.”
Part of the issue China encounter is that they do not allow dual citizenship, which many hockey players utilise when playing internationally. A number of Canadian and American players who play overseas are eligible to play for their adopted homeland.
A good example was Canadian Hnat Domenichelli, who played in more than 250 NHL games and regularly played for Team Canada in the Spengler Cup. In 2009 he became a Swiss citizen after playing in the country a few season and marrying a Swiss woman, and then played for Switzerland at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
China has lured a number of Canadian-born Chinese players to come over so they could gain citizenship to play in the Olympics, however none of them are near NHL calibre, and will be suiting up against the best of the best come February.
The only prominent player China have is Yip, a 36-year-old who played 174 games in the NHL, however his last one was during the 2013-14 season. Yuen was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 2011, however never made it to the NHL.
The IIHF could have allowed China to use “heritage” players, meaning anyone with Chinese ancestry could have played, however apparently the Chinese Ice Hockey Association balked at the idea a few years ago when it was initially floated. Now it is likely much too late to try and bring new players in, and many would probably decline the offer anyway.