China in for Olympic hockey despite concerns

China will take part in the men's hockey tournament at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing after initial concerns that the team would be embarrassed on home ice against NHL-level competition.

The International Ice Hockey Federation confirmed China's participation Tuesday, avoiding what would have been an unprecedented removal of a host country's team for performance reasons. The IIHF spent recent weeks reviewing players' eligibility to represent China.

Players making up the Chinese national team played two recent test games against Russian opponents with international officials watching closely. The team, playing as Kontinental Hockey League club Kunlun Red Star, lost 4-1 to Avangard Omsk and 5-4 in overtime to Amur Khabarovsk, getting outshot 77-43 in the two games combined.

Kunlun coach Ivano Zanatta said the games were evidence his team meets Olympic standards.

"Definitely not second to a Norway or a Denmark or Latvia. We're equal to those countries,'' Zanatta said then. ``Today and the last game they proved they have the character and the ability and they have the right to participate in their own Olympics.''

The IIHF agreed, even though Kunlun has lost 29 of 36 KHL games this season and China is ranked 32nd in the world.

The hope is that an influx of international players allows China to not get blown out in group play games against the U.S., Canada and Germany. Leading scorers Spencer Foo and Brandon Yip and top defenseman Ryan Sproul are Canadian, and starting goaltender Jeremy Smith is American, though there is still some uncertainty about who will be eligible to play in Beijing.

The IIHF allows players to naturalize and represent a country if they've played there for at least two years. It's not clear if there were eligibility concerns for some naturalized players because the pandemic forced Kunlun out of China to a Moscow suburb in early 2020. Athletes are required to be citizens of a country to participate in the Olympics.

After being awarded the 2022 Olympics in 2015, China hired big-name coaches from overseas and invested in a youth academy with the aim of developing a homegrown team in time. That failed, but China will still get to play on home ice in February.

The attention now turns to NHL participation, which was agreed to with the caveat that the league and Players' Association could pull out if pandemic conditions worsen. If a significant amount of NHL games are postponed for coronavirus-related reasons, withdrawing is an option because the 2 1/2-week Olympic break would be needed for rescheduling purposes.

The NHL/NHLPA deadline is Jan. 10.