The Chinese players celebrate after receiving the gold medals and trophy at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group A.

By Andy Potts –

China’s U20s national team returned to the ice after a two-year absence – and duly secured gold for the first time since 2019. Next year the team could play at its highest level since relegation to Division III in 2011.

The People’s Republic arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland, for this Division IIB tournament as something of an unknown quantity. The competition was cancelled in 2021 due to the pandemic and the Chinese team was unable to compete in last year’s edition as the country continued with strict travel restrictions. As a result, none of the 2023 roster had previous experience of U20 competition. However, on its return to the international stage, the team started out with a battling overtime win over Belgium and went on to defeat all opponents on its way to gold.

After that nerve-jangling start, China went from strength to strength. Game two brought a 4-0 win over Mexico, then came an 8-2 thrashing of top-seeded Serbia. Host nation Iceland could not capitalize on home advantage and the final game on Sunday ended in another 8-2 scoreline against Chinese Taipei.

Wei Ziyao, China’s ‘Mr. Versatile’ in Iceland, reflected on the tournament for the IIHF’s Weibo broadcast. “We got better and better throughout the five games,” he said. “When we first arrived, we were nervous in the first game. Through our constant discussions with each other and communication with the coach, the whole team gradually got better. We are excited about the result.”

His captain, Chen Kailin, paid tribute to his colleagues’ adaptability and willingness to learn – game to game, period to period and shift to shift. The players responded well to the input of head coach Aleksandrs Macijevskis. The 47-year-old Latvian, a much-travelled forward in a playing career that criss-crossed the Baltic, previously coached his homeland’s women’s national team and won a Latvian championship with Kurbads in 2018.

Wei was a great example of that. After arriving in Iceland expecting to play on the blue line, he found himself moved to the other end of the rink after a couple of games. He responded with 5 (3+2) points in the concluding games.

“I started playing defence,” Wei added. “Our coach thought we needed more power on the offensive side and changed my position to forward. I was a bit nervous at first, but then I realized that as long as I focused on my own game, it was actually a bit less difficult than I expected. If I just concentrate on my own game, I can play better and better. It’s a process.”

A Belgian battle

That opening win against eventual runner-up Belgium proved decisive for the entire tournament. It was the only game the Belgians lost, and they came within five minutes of winning it in regulation. The European team led three times in the game. A second-minute tally from Lowie Verys, assisted by his brother Tijs, was cancelled out by China’s captain Kailin Chen in the first period. The second session saw Tobi Gentry and Tenghe Huang exchange markers, then Huang turned provider in the third as Rong Luan replied to Enrique de Meyere’s effort.

China got its tying goal on 55:00, having previously survived a three-on-five penalty kill with the score at 2-3. Overtime saw the Chinese produce some of their best hockey of the game, and Zhiyi Lyu potted the winner 33 seconds before the need for a shoot-out.

Lyu, the game-winner in that opener, is one of a clutch of players currently based in North America. His eight points placed him among the team’s leading scorers, just behind captain Chen (who plays in the OJHL) and Li Mingshenhao, another OJHL prospect. They both had nine points.

Netminder Chen Shifeng got the directorate prize for the best goalie in the tournament. His 95.32% save ratio was the best in the competition, while his colleague Tian Boyan was second for that metric with 92.65%. Those figures also speak to the solid defence that guided China through the competition.

Chen Kailin talked up the value of his previous tournament with China, a pre-Covid U18 championship in 2019. “Everyone was a bit nervous in the first two games,” he added. “There were players who were playing at a World Championship for the first time. It was my second time playing for a junior national team and as a senior player I should lead the team, lighten up the dressing room and cheer the players up when we were behind. The result is good. I feel very happy.”

Silver for Belgium, another bronze for Serbia

With China unbeaten, the battle for silver and bronze was settled on the final day when Serbia faced Belgium. The Serbs, who finished third on home ice last season, peppered Belgian goalie Stijn Raeymaekers with 56 shots, but only managed three goals. At the other end, Lowie Vreys produced a 5-point game to lead the Red Devils to a 6-3 win. His contribution also took the defender to the top of the tournament scoring charts, beating his brother Tijs. Lowie was named best D-man for the competition, with Serbia’s Matija Dinic named best forward after finishing with 11 (4+7) points to help his team to a second successive bronze.

At the other end of the standings, the relegation battle went to the final game. Mexico, promoted from Division III last season, lost its opening four games but still had a shot at salvation if it could defeat Iceland and force a three-way tie that would also involve Chinese Taipei. However, backed by the home crowd, Iceland was in no mood to jeopardize its status at this level. The home team romped to a 7-0 victory, finishing in fourth and sending the Mexicans back to the level they came from. Chinese Taipei, one of two promoted teams last season, preserved its status thanks to victory over Mexico.