China Wants to Be the Next Hockey Heavyweight
Hockey is a rapidly growing sport in China, backed by the government and influenced by the Russians. After entering the KHL, China, the host of the 2022 Winter Games, hopes to be a player on the international stage.
Illustration by Ben Ruby/VICE
There is no Chinese word for "puck." In fact, the most literal translation for "bingqiu"—Chinese for hockey—is "ice ball." The Chinese are about as familiar with hockey as Wayne Gretzky is with badminton.
Yet off the West 4th Ring of Beijing on Sept. 5, 2016, the Kunlun Red Star were taking the ice for their home debut at LeSports Center. The Red Star are the newest franchise of the Russian-based KHL, thought to be the second-best league in the world after the NHL. In other words, what were they doing here?
All the signs that this is a major sporting event were evident: Throbbing light show. A red carpet. Pledging allegiance to a jumbotron.
There were also PA announcers who jumped from Chinese, Russian, to occasionally, English. Screaming red and yellow—surprise!—Kunlun jerseys. Pregame hullabaloo capped off with remarks from Xi Jinping, China's president.
And not much of a crowd, though I'll get more into that later.
But back to the question at hand: Why?
China wants to flex again, as it did during the 2008 Summer Olympics. This time, the country is training to be a hockey heavyweight. Like Russia, the United States, or Canada. Really.
China has the capital. And right now, it has the motivation: In just six short years, all eyes will once again be on Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
China, as host country, will have a chance to field squads for both the men's and women's ice hockey tournaments. In arguably the Games' most prestigious event, the hunger to be able to stand toe-to-toe with the best in the world is naturally greater. Not that far behind, also, is the specter of the "sick man of Asia", which has dogged the Middle Kingdom's last century.
But how can China transform its IIHF 37th-ranked men's national team, which plays literally three rungs below the elite, into a unit with even a puncher's chance in 2022?
If anybody can help China up the ladder quickly, it might be Russia. After all, it was the Soviets who, less than a decade after seriously taking up the sport, knocked Canada off 7-2 to win the 1954 World Championships, ushering in over three decades of international ice hockey domination.
At Kunlun, both the general manager and head coach are Russians. Their first "pupils" are four Chinese skaters and one goalie on the Red Star roster. Between Tianxiang Xia, Guanhua Wang, and Shengrong Xia, they've seen about four minutes of ice time a game through 31 regular-season contests. Game-ready, they're not.
"You're almost taking two or three steps up coming from where they played to this league," observed ex-Washington Capital Sean Collins, who's enjoying his first season in the KHL.
Even the head of that class, Rudi Ying and Zach Yuen, have averaged just three and 12 minutes, respectively, of ice time per game. They're among the squad's least-used regulars.
"They didn't see the kind of hockey we have in the KHL and NHL," explained GM Vladimir Krechin. "When they play against good hockey, they're going to grow up."
For now, that means more practice than game time.
Kunlun team media officer Oleg Vinokurov cautioned, however, that the Chinese wouldn't be subjected to Soviet-style training, "We understand that the Soviet hockey school, Soviet principles, will not work completely today.
"We have a coach who worked a long time in Finland. So he combines Soviet and European schools."
That would be Vladimir Yurzinov, Jr., son of the Soviet hockey great, who stressed, "The Chinese players have to transform from just liking hockey to professional hockey.
"For the immature player, hockey is enjoyment. For the professional, it's real work. It's a job."
So for the 18-year-old Ying, who skated in a mid-level Canadian junior league last year, he's gone from the playground to the coal mine. He gets it, though.
"Just skill isn't enough. You have to compete."
Ying believes most of the gap between the Chinese and the best of the world is mental. "The lack of skill is not the problem—the problem is in the way they see the game, the way they play the game, the way the game comes to them." He thinks his brethren approach hockey as a skill sport, and not a contact one.
Guess what's not going to work for a hockey lifer like Krechin? "When they start to play and have more experience and they have more contact, they'll see the contact won't kill them," predicted the former Philadelphia Flyers draft pick. "If they're not going to play contact, they're not going to play."
Clashing Russian and Chinese hockey ideals may have resulted in the recent dismissal of assistant coach Guofeng Wu. While nobody will speak on the record about what happened to the former national team member, hired by the Red Star to work with the club's Chinese skaters, it's clear that Wu wasn't up to the Russian standard.
Vancouver-born Yuen knows something about that high standard. The former Winnipeg Jets draft pick has appeared in the AHL, essentially the NHL's Triple-A level. He also once played with Edmonton Oliers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first-overall pick of the 2011 NHL draft. He put it succinctly when asked what the Chinese could learn from the Russians, "I think everything."
Both Ying and Yuen, difficult as it is to project the 2022 Chinese Olympic team this far out, look like sure things. One is Kunlun's youngest player, the other's career was floundering in North America. In principle, they're going to be the trailblazing graduates of China's first contact with high-level hockey.
But frankly, six years isn't enough time, even if more North Americans like Yuen represent Team China.
Krechin expects it will take at least 10-15 years for China to reach even top-15 IIHF status, with the likes of competitive, but far from intimidating national teams like Austria and Germany.
But as Krechin reminds us, "they do everything fast."
Ten to fifteen years will certainly be too long to catch the 2022 wave. But as we speak, there is a hockey mini-boom in China.
There are over 400 full-sized rinks scheduled to be built by 2020. These surfaces will help house the rapidly-growing number of children from affluent families getting into the sport. In 2008, there were around 300 hockey players at the elementary level, a number that has climbed to roughly 3,000 today, according to Longmou Li, last year's general manager of China's Under-18 national team.
"I heard that in some districts every kid is going to [be required to] learn skiing or skating," revealed IOC member Yang Yang.
That's a far cry from 2005, when Chris Collins landed in China. "[Hockey] suffered a terrible vacuum," observed the former San Jose Sharks color commentator. "In a country of 1.4 billion people, having a 1,000 or less play a sport, it's not really a sport."
Collins was laying the groundwork for San Jose's pioneering investment in Chinese professional hockey, the China Sharks. They competed in the relatively low-level Asia League Ice Hockey for two seasons, from 2007-09.
"Maybe three rinks in Beijing [back then], and now there's what, 15?" he recalled. "In Shanghai, there was one rink. I think it was a mall rink."
There were 200 kids registered to play hockey in Shanghai three years ago, according to Yang, but that number has at least tripled now.
Some of these kids will fit right into the hockey academy that the Red Star are opening. China has also enlisted the aid of the Czech Republic. "In this way, we used to teach Russians in the 1950s. You know the outcome," Czech Olympic Committee President Jiri Kejval told Mladá fronta Dnes.
The NHL has taken notice once again, too. Last summer, three NHL teams (the Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, and New York Islanders) held youth hockey camps in China. This year, the Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, and Montreal Canadiens joined the fray.
The league also hired former King Kevin Westgarth as vice president of business development and international affairs, specifically to grow the sport overseas. He told The Hockey News, "Last year, we had our first Chinese player drafted into the NHL in Andong Song. That will hopefully be a little bit of a catalyst in igniting some passion.
"Especially with the Winter Olympics coming along, it's an investment. I think that would be in the league's best interests and I think it would be in their best interests, as well."
For the last three seasons, state channel CCTV has broadcasted NHL games. According to Li, who is also the station's director of hockey programming, regular-season ratings have increased 150 percent over that time span, from about 400,000 to 1 million. For Game 4 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, about 6 million viewers tuned in; in the United States, 5.407 million viewers was the series high.
While the viewership numbers represent only a fraction of the country's 1.3 billion population, those mushrooming numbers will help President Xi live up to his promise.
When Beijing was still campaigning for the 2022 Games, Xi asserted, "It will inspire over 300 million Chinese to participate in winter sports if we win."
That's a lofty figure for a nation which has traditionally emphasized summer sports over winter. China didn't even win its first Winter Olympics gold until 2002, courtesy of Yang Yang, and its highest medal count in the Winter Games is just 11—set in Vancouver in 2010. Meanwhile, China pocketed 100 alone in the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
Of course, I doubt anybody is really tracking Xi's "300 million." But there's also no doubt that the Chinese men's ice hockey program has the full support of the state.
Case in point: Both Xi and Vladimir Putin were on hand to witness the official signing of Kunlun into the KHL last June. When was the first time Barack Obama and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau attended a hockey-related event together?
And while Xi and Putin were just a little preoccupied during the Red Star's home opener with the G20 summit, the presence of both was felt during the pregame ceremony.
"Every road started from the first small step," declared Russia's deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich, perhaps referencing Xi's One Belt, One Road engagement policy. "This is a starting point for a whole new development model to grow Chinese hockey."
Following Dvorkovich, Xi issued this statement through director of sports Liu Peng: "Ice hockey exchanges between the two countries will help China raise the standard of the game and better prepare for the 2022 Winter Olympics."
Speaking of preparation, or a lack of, it was a minor miracle the Kunlun Red Star's first home game was played at all.
While the KHL's expansion into China was announced last December, it wasn't made official until late June. Kunlun's first practice, held weeks later, consisted of only five skaters. They weren't even sure where they were playing their home debut until about a week before the game, as LeSports Center had already scheduled a concert for Sept. 5. Rumours were rampant that the Red Star would be forced to premiere in Shanghai.
As for the game itself, official attendance was 7,832 for an arena which seats 14,000 for hockey. To their credit, it was an enthusiastic mob. Just a couple minutes in, speedy Kunlun winger Oleg Yashin rushed the puck through the neutral zone, backing off the Admiral Vladivostok defenders, creating a surge in the crowd... and he dumped it in, which was exactly the right thing to do because the Red Star were on the penalty kill. They're still picking up the beats of the sport here.
Shortly thereafter, ex-New Jersey Devils blueliner Anssi Salmela rang up the Red Star's first-ever home goal. A goal is a goal in any language, and the crowd roared.
Cries of "jiayou," which literally means "fill up with gas," punctuated the action. Behind me, a vociferous fan shrilled "Motherfucker" with bloodcurdling zeal and, most importantly, did it at the appropriate time. He really had me at "Icing!" though, which he shouted at his friend, Fisher Yu, who wore a "Kiss Me I'm Irish & I Play Hockey" T-shirt. As it turns out, Zhong Cong Wu and Yu were among Beijing's earliest recreational ice hockey players.
Not even halfway in, Kunlun had raced out to a 5-1 lead. If anything, the Red Star were actually spoiling their supporters.
The stands had already emptied out when Salmela potted another goal in the final frame. The tepid applause indicated that they were pretty tired of this whole scoring thing.
My attention was wandering, too, and I saw what seemed like a mirage at first: It was a little girl wearing a Sidney Crosby jersey in Beijing. Her father, Song Dai, proudly declared that Demi was one of about 20 girls who play hockey in the capital. They had been in Canada for a youth tournament during the Stanley Cup Final, which explains the Crosby love.
After Kunlun's 6-3 triumph, former Maple Leafs forward Alexei Ponikarovsky echoed a popular postgame sentiment, "I hope as we win more games, more people will show up."
But clearly, there was something in the air here. There is a small but passionate hockey fan base. More kids than ever are playing the game. That said, it's a leap of faith. China, the KHL, and the Red Star are hoping, "if you build it, they will come."
"You can see the air is a little bit different here," joked Kunlun captain Janne Jalasvaara. Of course, he was talking about something else.
But what's also different about China? It can afford an expensive leap of faith. It can afford money-losing crowds. For a nation not famous for it, though, it's hard to say if China will have the necessary patience.
The infrastructure which China is investing in can foster a world-class national team, but it probably won't happen soon. After 2022, will the government still care? Or will the dream of a Chinese hockey power be forgotten, just another deserted Olympic edifice?
"Government money is big right now. But after 2022, it may not be as much," admitted Li. "China needs a self-sustaining hockey system, so government money doesn't matter."
Yang concurred. "In China, the sports system has been changing. Before, it was more government funding which drives the sport. In the future, from my point of view, it's going to be more market-driven."
The two-time gold medalist is a believer, though. "After 2022, the sport can grow by itself. Hockey has the potential.
"It's popular with the kids."
But not popular enough, at least not yet. After their Beijing opening, the Red Star migrated to Feiyang Skating Center in Shanghai for home games. LeSports Center, which was pre-booked, will welcome them back in mid-December.
Since the move, Kunlun has averaged just 1,103 over 14 appearances in Shanghai, amidst rumors that the KHL is looking to contract some teams.
A mere 721 witnessed history on Oct. 27 at Feiyang, when Yuen became the first Chinese player to score in KHL history, re-directing a Tomas Marcinko pass through Amur Khabarovsk goaltender Juha Metsola en route to a 1-0 triumph.
"To score a goal like that, it's not only something for me," said Yuen, whose parents were born in China, "it means a lot more than that for Chinese hockey in the future."
It'll take more than the occasional goal to grow hockey in China, though. The kids could use a role model. In Yuen, Kunlun may have just unearthed one. After averaging under six minutes a game in his first 10 contests, his playing time has increased significantly, to about 15 minutes a game over his last 21. He hasn't been a star, but being a regular on a playoff-calibre KHL team is certainly something to look up to.
The blueliner attributed much of his progress to the Russian and European-trained coaching staff, "They've really helped me adjust to the different of game," he said. "In European hockey, there's a lot less leeway with stickwork and holding and that kind of stuff [than North American hockey]. Defending is very different. Especially on such big ice.
"Our team has a lot of high-end skill players, few guys who have played in the NHL. Getting to practice and play with them has really got me ready."
When you're trying to pull off the seemingly impossible and compete with the world's greatest hockey superpowers, every possible hope matters. For Team China, a Chinese hockey player's rapid improvement because of the KHL is no small feat.
Or as Yuen himself offered, "Every country has to start somewhere."