The deafening sound of AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” blared from speakers as fans made their way to their seats for the opening home game of the new season. Jumbo-trons flashed with adverts and action replays as players from both teams — a mix of Scandinavian, Slavic and North American names stenciled on their jerseys — skated lazily round the ice below, practicing slap shots and passes.
It could have been match day in Moscow, Malmo or Montreal, but this was Shanghai in September, and although the fans inside the Sanlin Sports Center were wearing mittens and scarves, outside it was a glittering tropical night at the end of the monsoon season. A closer inspection of the players’ jerseys showed a number of anglicized Chinese or Cantonese names such as Yuen, Yip and Jaw — rare in ice hockey, an overwhelmingly white, northern-climate sport.
As the game got under way between Beijing Kunlun Red Star, China’s first world-class professional hockey team, and Jokerit of Helsinki, it was clear that many of the spectators hadn’t watched the sport much before. Occasionally they seemed unsure of when to cheer, though they were clearly exhilarated by the fast-paced action that followed the face-offs as punches were thrown, bodies slammed into the boards and pucks zinged bullet-like across the rink — even though Red Star ended up losing 4-1.
Though the 5,000-seater stadium was only about half full — efforts to create a Mexican wave repeatedly petered out in empty bleachers — the club is gaining popularity, according to Red Star’s winger Alexei Ponikarovsky, who hails from Kiev and spent most of his career in North America’s National Hockey League (NHL). The first home game of the previous season attracted about 200 people, he says. “It was like a practice. Now we are seeing some real interest. It’s a good sign.”
Until very recently, a world-class hockey team was not something China desperately needed. But that changed two years ago when Beijing won its bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, and suddenly had to come to grips with a serious deficiency in the games’ marquee sport. By tradition, the host nation can field a team in every sport; in this case taking on ice-hockey superpowers such as Russia, the US, Sweden, Finland and current Olympic champions Canada. Team China, currently ranked 37th in the world, one below Mexico, has a huge challenge to make up the gap.
Perhaps worse than losing matches is the prospect of losing face, if the Beijing 2022 Games leads to a revolt by the world’s elite players, who have taken time out from their regular season to represent their countries at the Olympics. “The idea of going to play in a time zone 13 or 14 hours ahead, with a home team that everyone will beat by 10-15 goals, is not something that is going to sit well with the best players and owners in the NHL,” says Mark Simon, a former consultant for Red Star.
China is not the first non-hockey-playing nation that has had to improve its national team in the face of near-certain Olympic humiliation. South Korea, which hosts the 2018 Winter Games in January, granted citizenship to five Canadian hockey pros, none of whom had any South Korean ancestry. Most only had to learn the national anthem.
But handing out passports to Russians, Canadians and Finns is not something that will fly in China, politically or legally. Under the nationalities law, citizenship is almost impossible to obtain except for those with Chinese ancestry. Then there is the political reality of modern China’s chest-thumping nationalism, which is rising as the country throws off what it sees as 150 years of humiliation at the hands of the west.
“Having your hockey team named Jones or Markov just isn’t going to work here,” says Mark Dreyer, who runs a sports blog in Beijing. “New converts to the Chinese national team would not be accepted by the public unless there was a genuine Chinese connection.”
China’s desperation presented an opportunity that Russia, eager to build ties with China in the wake of US sanctions, was quick to seize. In June 2016, as part of a raft of other agreements, President Vladimir Putin traveled to Beijing and hammered out a deal with China’s President Xi Jinping to set up an ice-hockey team. Kunlun Red Star would be the germ of an Olympic program, attracting world-class hockey players and developing Chinese talent.
For good measure, the team would play in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), set up by Putin in 2008 and chaired by his good friend Gennady Timchenko, an oil and gas magnate worth $15bn, according to Forbes. Last year, coaches, players and staff from the KHL were rushed to Beijing to lend a hand, while Timchenko — who is under US Treasury Department sanctions imposed following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 — personally took a stake in the club.
Just as the exchange of table-tennis players presaged US President Richard Nixon’s 1972 arrival in Beijing, ultimately detaching China from the Soviet bloc, so Putin’s hockey diplomacy takes place as geopolitical tectonic plates are shifting in the other direction. Building relations with China has become a strategic priority for Russia at a time of international isolation in the wake of war in Ukraine. And Russia, likewise, is a convenient hedge for China, which is butting up against US hegemony in Asia.
“We all know about ping-pong diplomacy,” says Zhao Xiaoyu, the former vice-president of the Asian Development Bank, who was named as Kunlun Red Star’s chairman earlier this year. “There is clearly a political aspect to this.”
The Russia-China hockey experiment has been given top priority by the leaders of both countries. The club is not short of talent or funds: “We are very well taken care of [financially],” says Red Star forward Brandon Yip. Citic and Vanke, two blue-chip Chinese conglomerates, sponsor the team, a sure sign of official favour. But for the experiment to really work, it will have to attract a Chinese audience — and Chinese fans are thought by experts to dislike contact and violence in sports, both of which hockey serves up in large doses. There are also no mainland Chinese stars to bring the game to China the way the Shanghai-born Yao Ming did when he became an NBA basketball sensation in the US.
“It’s really a challenge to balance this — the entertainment side of it — versus the competition side of it,” says Red Star’s chairman Zhao. “If you don’t win the game, people will lose interest. The only way to keep them interested is to keep winning. You also have to have some Chinese names on the jerseys . . . We would naturally prefer to see Asian faces.”
Zhao is the Chinese face of a team that is not, for now, very Chinese. Avuncular and jolly, with fluent English, he has represented the Chinese government in a number of multilateral finance roles.
“I’ve been in training,” he jokes, pointing to a hockey stick in his office, though he admits he was chosen more for his international business diplomacy skills than for his knowledge of the game.
He says politics is not the only aspect of the Red Star project — “nor the most important one”. He believes that hockey will be a great business in China, piggybacking on the global rise of the Chinese middle class.
“Ice hockey is an upper-middle-income-country game,” he says. “The equipment, the training, it’s expensive and takes a long time. It is popular among the upper and middle-upper class — their income can support this game. It’s a sport that you cannot afford to do until you develop to a certain level, and it is a sign that China has arrived there.”
For a sport that has a million registered hockey players worldwide, the Chinese market certainly represents a sizeable opportunity. Currently there are slightly more than 1,000 amateur adult players, mainly in China’s north-east. But in China, sport must also respond to political priorities — and ice hockey is a priority now. The government has laid plans for 500 new skating rinks by 2022, and many Chinese cities have responded to the Winter Olympics win by making winter sports mandatory in elementary and middle schools. In Beijing, minor league hockey started out in 2008 with four teams and 60 players; today, there are 130 clubs and 3,000 kids playing. Ice-hockey tickets have been part of numerous school promotions.
Children and their parents are curious about this new sport. At a junior game last season in Beijing, one dad told me: “My son likes the pads — he says they make him look like a robot.” Sharon Li, whose seven-year-old son has recently taken up lessons, said: “I like the game because the players are very aggressive. It’s a very manly game.”
According to Zhao, ice hockey’s appeal to this generation of parents is clear. China’s infamous “one-child policy” has created its own culture. “In families which have one boy, the boy tends to be spoiled in many ways because they have grandparents and older generations. That’s a lot of people paying attention to only one boy,” Zhao explains. “So the boy doesn’t grow up very manly, and in many cases doesn’t know how to play in teams. This game is really a man’s game. You have clashes, power, even fights.”
Even more important, he adds, is the teamwork. “If they are an only child, they don’t really know how to deal with others. They want to be the centre of everything. So teamwork is important.”
The only problem, says Mark Simon, is that Chinese parents may see things a little differently. Hockey, a middle-class sport in the west, has become something of an elite status symbol in China, an expensive — and imported — luxury commodity. Partly due to aggressive marketing by rink companies, most parents, he says, insist on one-on-one lessons because they assume that it’s better to have the coach’s full attention. So much for teamwork.
Not only that, says Simon, but kids in China “peak when they are eight”; by 12, they are studying full time and have given up hockey. “We need to keep kids and parents interested.” Until that changes, he adds, the chances of seeing a lot of mainland Chinese ice-hockey players at the Olympics are not going to improve.
Bringing hockey to China was never going to be easy. Just how difficult has become abundantly clear during the brief history of Kunlun Red Star. Despite an impressive first year under its Russian coach Vladimir Yurzinov Jr, in which the team reached the KHL play-off stages, it nonetheless failed in one crucial metric: Chinese players were not getting enough ice time.
Yurzinov defended his strategy, explaining that the principle of having Chinese names on jerseys had to be subordinated to the overall performance. But Red Star’s owners wanted it both ways. Yurzinov retired suddenly in March, replaced by “Iron” Mike Keenan, an NHL hockey legend, who won over the Chinese by betting that he could make a winning KHL team by developing naturalized Chinese-American and Chinese-Canadian players.
Vancouver and Toronto, hotbeds of Canadian ice hockey, became the focus of his recruitment drive and hosted development camps in the summer for Chinese-Canadian players. By the time of September’s game against Jokerit in Shanghai, the results of his efforts were evident.
Six of the Red Star squad that night were part-Chinese by way of Canada or the US, some as far back as third generation (which would speed their path to citizenship). “They said, ‘Hey, we need some Chinese players and you fit both categories. You play pro hockey somewhere, and you have Chinese ancestry.’ And that was the main discussion,” recalls Cory Kane, who hails from Irvine, California, of the selection interviews that saw him join up.
Finding the players was not that hard, as it turns out. As Brayden Jaw, another of Red Star’s Canadian contingent, puts it, “There are so few Chinese players [in professional hockey] that we know each other.” But the “ABC” — American-Born Chinese — players have faced skepticism in their putative homeland. Just how Chinese are they really?
Two days before the Jokerit game, China got a chance to find out when the team flew into Shanghai to meet the fans. Many of the new players were in the country they represented on ice for the first time. A welcome ceremony organized by the team included speeches from local officials and a bouncy cheerleader routine. Finally, the evening’s emcee bellowed, “Let’s meet our Chinese players!” and the six shuffled on to a stage to be playfully interrogated.
“Can you say ‘Hello’ in Chinese?” the emcee said playfully to Brandon Yip, a three-quarters Chinese, one-quarter Irish forward from Canada, who had moved from Dusseldorf to play for Red Star. “Um, hello,” Yip replied in English, before trying a “Ni Hao” to applause and laughter.
Next up was Kane, who was playing in Trinec in the Czech Republic before he got the call to come to play for the motherland — or rather his Chinese mother’s motherland — last summer. Zeroing in on Kane’s Chinese name, Jianan, the announcer saw another chance to test the players’ erudition. “Your Chinese name reminds me of the literary style of Cao Cao,” he said, referring to a 2nd-century poet-warlord. “Alright, yeah!” replied an amused and clearly baffled Kane.
Only Zach Yuen spoke Mandarin. In June 2016, as Kunlun Red Star was being formed, Yuen had been found playing minor league ice hockey for US team Idaho Steelheads. He jumped at the chance to come to China, where he has become the Chinese face of the team; he has been interviewed by Chinese GQ and even inspired a Zach Yuen action figure. “I’m very happy to play hockey in China, it’s a chance to make friends and get closer to my culture,” Yuen told his fans in fluent Mandarin.
As the event demonstrated, the team is clearly divided between the players picked with the Olympics in mind, and the rest (“I didn’t like being singled out so much. We’re a team in the end,” says Jaw). But the Chinese players will have to think very hard about how Chinese they feel. The law forbids dual nationality: anyone taking Chinese nationality will have to give up their existing one. The only athlete to have done this is Alex Hua Tian, a London-born equestrian, who took Chinese citizenship to ride in the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics.
Of the six, only Yuen said he was definitely willing to take this step. “I come from a pretty Chinese background, so China feels like home. I would give up my Canadian citizenship for a Chinese passport. The other guys, I’m not so sure. A lot of them come from third or fourth generation and don’t speak Chinese.”
For some of the Red Star players, however, it seems that Chinese officialdom might be set to make some exceptions in its efforts to avoid an Olympic hockey meltdown.
“There is something in the works, but I don’t think it will be dual citizenship. It’s more of a grey area than that,” says Yuen. Kunlun’s chairman Zhao declines to be specific, but talks of the hockey players as “a special case”. “There is a way,” he says, conspiratorially. “It’s happening in Korea, why not in China?”
In the meantime, Red Star’s plan to rely on naturalized Chinese players has run into trouble. While the team started the season well — they were at the top of the KHL’s eastern conference after the first dozen games — in November, they hit a losing streak. Keenan tried to have Zach Yuen cut from the team and sent to a lower-league team. But Yuen, who is popular with the Chinese fans, refused to go.
Members of the team said Keenan’s confrontational personal style had become a problem. “He was always known as Iron Mike. Nothing new there, I guess,” said one team official. Then this month, as the club kept on losing, Keenan was sacked as coach. “As time went by it became more and more obvious that it was too much for Mike,” said Oleg Vinokurov, the team’s spokesman, “In the end, he just lost his grip on the team.” Keenan could not be reached for comment. Yuen says he is now in talks to return to the team after training on his own for two months.
Mark Simon blames Keenan’s aggressive style for the rift with the club’s Chinese patrons. Keenan and the Chinese “were like two magnets that repel each other”, he says. “But there is something bigger going on. Eight months, two coaches — that starts to be a pattern.”
They need to get it right soon. At the Asian winter games in Sapporo earlier this year, Team China let in 32 goals in three games and failed to score a single goal against South Korea (10-0) Japan (14-0) and Kazakhstan (8-0) — hardly ice-hockey superpowers. Even the official Xinhua news agency, used to putting a positive spin on disaster, said: “This demonstrated the gap between China men’s hockey level with top level in Asia.” Building hockey in China, added Xinhua, was like “building bricks without straw”.
At a press conference, the national team’s coach Hu Jiang blurted out his frustrations: “With no one able to play, everything is just useless.”