Winter Olympics 2022: Inside the odd Olympic journey of China's men's hockey team

It's a motley crew of career hockey players -- most hail from North America -- who made a very real commitment to be part of China's journey to the ice in Beijing. Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images


It was the 2018-19 season, and Smith was a goalie for the AHL Bridgeport Tigers, an affiliate of the New York Islanders. It was the ninth minor league team of his career. He was getting older. Outside of 10 games with the Colorado Avalanche, his NHL dream hadn't been realized. He was in hockey purgatory. "I was an NHL bubble guy, always a No. 3 goalie," he said.

His career, and his life, changed with a phone call. It was his agent. Someone had offered Smith a contract for next season. It was a team based in the hottest of hockey hotbeds:

Beijing, China?

Smith, 32, initially laughed at the randomness of the suitor. "If you're joking, I'm waiting for the punchline," he recalled thinking. "But it was a two-year contract. They were serious."

There was more to the offer. The Kunlun Red Star in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League served as an incubator for the Chinese men's national team. Smith wasn't just being offered the chance to play professionally in the KHL; he was being given the chance to be the goaltender for the host nation in the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

Again, this struck Smith oddly. He was a native of Dearborn, Michigan, not mainland China. To his knowledge, he did not have any Chinese ancestry. So he wanted to make something clear to his potential new team when responding to the contract offer.

"I told them I can't renounce my U.S. citizenship," said Smith. "They were like, 'Do not worry. We will not ask you. This is not what this whole process is about. It's about getting you qualified for the Olympics.'"

This was, it turns out, no joke: China spent several years trying to avoid being a laughingstock at their own Olympics. They imported players like Smith and former NHL players Brandon Yip, Jake Chelios and Spencer Foo. They hired hockey luminaries like Wayne Gretzky, Phil Esposito and Mike Keenan to lend their program gravitas. They spent countless millions on hockey infrastructure and player development.

For all that effort, the Chinese men's national team was nearly disinvited from its own Olympics because officials worried that they would be utterly embarrassed by teams in their group populated by NHL stars.

But they were allowed in.

And then the NHL opted out.

"It's kind of bittersweet. It would obviously bring a lot more attention to the Olympics, and because it'd be cool to see how we matched up against the best players in the world. But without those guys coming, it gives us more of a shot to go farther in the tournament," said Yip, whose team makes its Olympics debut on Thursday in a preliminary round game against the U.S.

"We're the underdogs, by far. But if we can pull out a win against the U.S., it would be astronomical. It would be unbelievable."

YIP, A 36-YEAR-OLD native of British Columbia, played the last of his 174 NHL games in 2014 with the Phoenix Coyotes. His next stops were in the AHL and the ECHL, then leaving for an international hockey career. "If you look at my Elite Prospects page, I think I've played in every nation that has hockey," Yip told ESPN.

Yip was playing in the German hockey league in 2017 when he was contacted by Kunlun Red Star, receiving the same sales pitch Smith would eventually get: Play for the KHL team, for a chance to represent China in the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

"I had no idea I could play in the Olympics, man," Yip said, laughing. "I knew I wasn't making Team Canada, that's for sure."

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Billy Ngok is the billionaire founder of China Environmental Energy Holdings and the owner of Kunlun, which began play in the 2016-17 season. Ngok believes hockey can be a top-four team sport in China. He envisions a time when the Chinese women's national team could challenge for Olympic gold. He's been a bit more measured for the men's team.

"Everybody wants gold, but we need to be realistic, you know?" Ngok told The Hockey News in 2019. "For the men, we should build a competitive team. You can't lose 10-0. We need to score goals and maybe win a game."

As a KHL contender, the Red Star ... haven't been one. They made the playoffs in their inaugural season, losing in the first round. They've not qualified since and were in last place when the 2021-22 season was paused for the Olympics.

"I think they created Kunlun to help hockey in China. They don't have a high-skilled league, so to get into the KHL was a privilege," said Smith.

The Red Star hired longtime NHL coach Mike Keenan in March 2017 as its coach and general manager. He also served on the team's advisory board and the advisory committee for the Beijing Olympic hockey program. Keenan told CGTN that he was advising the Chinese government on how to create grassroots programs and prepare an Olympic team -- not only from players within the country, but by targeting international players with ancestral links or that would meet residency requirements.

"We will have to find players throughout the world, identify probably 25 guys for the men's team," said Keenan, who was fired from his hockey operations capacities in Dec. 2017.

There would be other big-name advisors paid to assist with the programs. Phil Esposito came on in 2017. Wayne Gretzky was hired in 2018 as an "ambassador" for the Red Star, making appearances in China and trying to develop a hockey school there.

In an interview with Xinhua, Gretzky said he was "pleasantly surprised by how much hockey there is" in China, but tempered expectations for the Olympic team.

"Realistically, the best thing they want to do is be respectable," said Gretzky.

THE CHINA MEN'S national team is a project several years in the making. The plan was always to integrate international players with a core of players from mainland China. It's a plan that's taken some criticism from Chinese fans; Reuters quoted one as asking, "How come so many of them don't have Chinese blood?"

Looking at its roster, you might not realize that 18 of its 25 players were born or grew up in North America. Or that one -- Denis Osipov -- was a native of Russia.

Every player is listed as a member of Kunlun Red Star. Per the government's demand, all of the players imported to represent the country have been rechristened with Chinese-language names. Jeremy Smith is Shimisi Jieruimi. Jake Chelios, the 30-year-old former Detroit Red Wings defenseman and the son of Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios, is Kailiaosi Jieke. Brandon Yip is Jingjuang Ye while Denis Osipov is Aoxibofu Dannisi.

Kunlun refers to those born outside of China as "Heritage and Import" players. China does not allow dual citizenship, but it's known to make exceptions for foreign athletes.

"I told China that I'll never give up my [U.S.] passport, and they said that's fine," said Smith.

Smith isn't sure if he has any Chinese heritage. It doesn't factor into his eligibility to represent the nation. "To play in the Olympics, you have to have a passport for the country [with whom] you're competing. I looked it up: I think there were 180 Olympians in Tokyo [2020] that participated under a passport that is not of their birth country," said Smith.

International Ice Hockey Federation rules allow players to represent a country if they've spent at least two years living there and playing for the national team. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Red Star to relocate from China to just outside Moscow in 2020, the IIHF determined that the North Americans on the roster were eligible to play in the Olympics.

"I told China that I'll never give up my [U.S.] passport, and they said that's fine." Jeremy Smith, China does not allow dual citizenship, but it's known to make exceptions for foreign athletes

"When COVID hit, it was at the end of the KHL season. We were actually in Beijing at the time, and they told us there was this virus going around. So we went to Russia and played our last month of home games and away games on the road in Russia," Yip said. "Fast forward to next year, and we played just outside of Moscow, and did so for the last two years because international travel as tough to do."

Until this season, the Kunlun Red Star roster was still mostly populated with former North American players and Russian players. Among the names on the 2019-20 roster: NHL players like Wojtek Wolski, Griffin Reinhart and Devante Smith-Pelly. The 2020-21 Red Star featured a similar mix.

Both seasons were impacted by COVID-19, as the Red Star relocated from China to Russia. Because of that, Chinese officials didn't want their mainland players to relocate to Russia, before allowing them to play with the Red Star this season.

Smith estimated that Kunlun's training camp had upwards of 50 players, with two full practices a day in what was essentially an Olympic camp. Many of the mainland China players had experience in the VHL -- the KHL's developmental league -- but the talent disparity was evident. Smith said the transition from the VHL to the KHL was "a really big jump" for the Chinese players, despite the fact they had been honing their skills away from that league.

"When they came to our camp in July, it was like they had been in a skills camp for a year and a half. In China, that's what they were doing. They were at a base camp Olympic training facility, literally skating every day and doing skills. So they got to our camp and they were ripping shots, hard," he said.

They were also ripping on each other. Some of the mainland players had played together, but others had been opponents. The animosity traveled with them to the Red Star.

"Whatever area you're born in, that's what team you play for. Some guys played together. Some of them played against each other ... and they hated each other. So coming into this season, there wasn't just a separation between English, Russian and Chinese, but there was a separation between the Chinese players because they're like 'this is my nemesis,'" said Smith.

"It's like if [Boston Bruins star] Brad Marchand and someone on the Montreal Canadiens played on a line. You're putting those jerseys down and putting a new one on. We're all adults. We're able to differentiate."

On top of their inexperience, there was also a language barrier to overcome. Some of the mainland China players don't speak English or Russian, the two basic languages used in team meetings. They were run by head coach Ivano Zanatta of Italy and his staff, which includes former NHL star Alexei Kovalev. The Chinese-speaking players would sit by one of three translators hired by Kunlun to help communication between them and the coaching staff; or, in some cases, one of the few fluent bilingual teammates would assist them.

"We have three or four players that speak both English and Chinese. So they'll sit by them and ask 'what does that mean?' as the coaches speak. It's also a lot of visual learning. Some coaches are better than others at it," said Smith.

He said it's been a slow learning process, but players are catching on. "You can see these players start to flourish when they understand the concepts and the systems," he said.

The language barrier was up on the ice, too. That proved challenging to Smith, a vocal goalie who does a lot of traffic directing from his crease.

"We have a Russian defenseman back there. We have Chinese defenseman. Canadian, American ... an absolute mix of players," he said. "I try to speak Chinese when a Chinese defenseman is back there, and Russian for the Russian defenseman. It's not only recognizing the play, it's recognizing who is making the play, and what language they speak. My mind is just non-stop back there."

Gradually through the season, the players found cohesion on and off the ice. Yip said what they lack in high-end ability they make up for in hustle.

"We're going to have to play our system, rely on our defense and our goaltending, and hopefully capitalize on other teams' mistakes," he said. "We work hard, man. We work our asses off. Obviously, we're not as talented as the other teams, but we know each other. We've played with each other for years. And we'll have to use that to our advantage now."

Now that they know they're allowed in the Olympics, that is.

"I don't want to say it was insulting. I understand where they were coming from. But it definitely hurt," said Yip.

IN SEPT. 2021, IIHF president Luc Tardif voiced a concern that others had shared privately: That China, the No. 12 seed in the Olympic tournament and ranked 32nd in the world, was going to get absolutely embarrassed by the NHL players in its group.

These Chinese were seeded in the same group as Canada, the U.S. and Germany. Visions of NHL players like Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Auston Matthews leading their teams to blowout wins was inescapable.

"Watching a team being beaten 15-0 is not good for anyone, not for China, or for ice hockey," said Tardiff, who openly wondered if the Chinese team had an "insufficient sporting standard" for the tournament.

The host team had gotten an automatic seed in the Olympic hockey tournament since 2006, but it wasn't a formal policy. Tardif said that the Chinese men's team was under evaluation, and that Norway, which just missed the Olympic cut, could replace them.

The players on Kunlun were stunned and nervous. "It was a little bit heartbreaking. We had been doing this for the last 5-6 years. It was a long road. For us to finally get to the final leg and have them question whether we would even play in the Olympics, it was a tough pill to swallow," said Yip.

Smith cited Usain Bolt races in the Summer Olympics: Someone has to finish last, and just because they do doesn't mean they shouldn't be an Olympian.

"If you tell that person who trained for eight years that they can't come because they're not good enough... I'm sorry, but that's just not in the sporting spirit," he said.

The IIHF gave China a vote of confidence in November, but with a caveat: The IIHF and the Chinese Ice Hockey Association would travel to watch two Kunlun Red Star games, and then the IIHF council would reconvene "to discuss the next steps forward."

The Red Star was not a good hockey team this year. When the KHL season was paused for the Olympics -- it will jump right to the playoffs upon resuming play -- Kunlun had a record of 9-32-7. It had given up 198 goals in 48 games, which is 48 more goals than anyone else in the KHL.

"This isn't a beer league game. These aren't beer league players. It's still high-quality hockey" Jeremy Smith

"If you look at the standings, we're in last place right now. We struggled at times to put three periods together. A lot of the games early on we were losing a lot of one-goal games, man. We were right in there," said Yip. "Obviously, we've gotten blown out a couple times, but that's just inexperience."

On Nov. 15, 2021, the Red Star stepped onto the ice against Amur Khabarovsk for what amounted to an Olympic audition.

"Yeah, an audition with really good hecklers in the crowd," joked Smith.

"We were nervous. As far as what we were told, we had to win those two games or we weren't going to be in the Olympics," said Smith. "This whole five-year process, it's all for nothing if you don't win."

At first, it looked like the Chinese national team might not win the part. Kunlun was down 1-0 after the first period; in under 12 minutes in the second period, they were suddenly down 4-0.

"It was tense. They were making plays that they normally wouldn't make. I could just sense we were struggling," said Smith. "I was like, 'we have to stop the bleeding.' And we did."

The Red Star scored twice before the end of the second period. It roared all the way back to tie the game with two third-period goals, before losing in overtime. "We rallied in heroic fashion," said Yip. "It showed the IIHF that we're capable of coming back, capable of competing."

Their second audition game also ended in defeat, but it was a valorous one. Kunlun played Avangard tightly, trailing only 2-1 before Omsk scored twice in the final five minutes of the game for a 4-1 win.

The Kunlun players spent the next few weeks refreshing news stories and hoping to hear good news. "We hear the rumors. They swirl," Smith said. "I think they were worried about China having a team that could compete. I just don't know if they were educated enough in the process of what Kunlun and China had been doing. That they had been developing a professional team for five years to get them eligible."

Finally, it was re-reaffirmed that China would participate in its own Olympic tournament.

(Sorry, Norway.)

"It was actually a good experience for us. It was a little bit nerve-wracking but hopefully that gave us a little bit of a sniff of what it's going to be like in the Olympics," said Yip.

Their anticipation for the Olympics changed dramatically in Dec. 2021. The NHL opted out due to a material change in its regular-season schedule because of COVID postponements. "I was kind of shocked because I didn't think it would be an issue. Once they made that decision in the CBA that the players would go, I thought it was set in stone," said Smith.

Suddenly, China went from expecting to get blown out in Beijing to at least being competitive against their opponents after the talent drain.

Maybe even winning a game or two?

"The guys that are coming are still really good. This isn't a beer league game. These aren't beer league players. It's still high-quality hockey," said Smith. "But there's a big difference between Leon Draisaitl and a first-line guy from the American League."

TO UNDERSTAND THIS moment for Team China, one must understand Chinese hockey culture.

"It's new. It's a country that's thousands of years old, but only recently have they started to open up to new things," said Smith. "Like the NBA craze that has taken that country by storm. All the Chinese guys on our team wear Golden State stuff."

Smith said that hockey struggles in China for the same reason it struggles in parts of the U.S.: Not only are some of the concepts in the sport unrelatable, but the cost and equipment for entry is formidable. "It's not a ping-pong table and some paddles," said Smith, referring to another national pastime.

The NHL showed interest in the market beginning around 2014 and played preseason "China Games" series in 2017 and 2018 in Beijing, Shenzhen and Shanghai. There was talk about an NHL satellite office being placed somewhere in the country.

"We recognize the importance of helping China build a strong national hockey program and are committed to supporting that effort," said commissioner Gary Bettman in 2017, adding at the time that the NHL's commitment extended beyond the Olympics.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the Chinese Olympic organizers "weren't happy, obviously" that the NHL opted out of the Beijing Games. "But I don't think it would harm our ability to play internationally in the future," he said.

"The NHL sold out their stadiums," said Yip. "There are small packs of fans in China. It's definitely growing, but it's small."

Yip is excited about what the Olympics can do to grow it more. He isn't looking for a "miracle in ice" -- although he obviously wouldn't mind being a part of one. For Yip, the final scores aren't as important as the next steps.

"It's not just about competing in the Olympics. There's a bigger picture here: Putting the sport I love, that's been so good to me, on a platform. Grow the game here. It can be an exciting future for hockey in China," he said. "Hockey is for everyone. To be able to share that with people who don't know what hockey is, that's such an honor."

Given the team's incredible journey to the Winter Games, just having China in the Beijing men's hockey tournament seems like a victory itself.

"If one child in China starts playing hockey because they watched us in the Olympics, I think we've done our job," said Smith.