The Chinese players celebrate with their gold medals after winning all games in Zagreb.

By  Henrik Manninen –

Two-and-a-half months after skating at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, the Chinese men’s national team stormed through the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A in emphatic style and same as the women’s team recently earns promotion this spring.

The Chinese men will play in the Division I next year for the first time since 2007 when China hosted in Qiqihar.

Sweeping the field with a perfect record of four straight wins and a goal difference of 28-4, China skated in a class of their own. The gold medals were secured after just three games courtesy of a 5-1 win against hosts and bronze winners Croatia on Friday night.

With an entire roster skating for Kunlun Red Star of the KHL, China had earlier in the tournaments rolled past Israel 14-1, beaten their closest rivals, the Netherlands, 5-1 before dispatching the youngest team of the tournament, Spain, 4-1 in their final game.

“We were expected to win and we won, so that is important,” said China´s head coach Ivano Zanatta. “This is the first step of our heritage group of players participating at the World Championship. They showed the qualities that we need. Patience, determination, the right attitude, commitment, and that’s what’s important. I am really happy for Team China.”

The Netherlands defeated Croatia 6-2 in the closing game of the tournament to get their hands on the silver. At the opposite end of the table, promoted Israel lost all four games to finish bottom to drop down to Division IIB. Australia, bronze winners at its most recent World Championship appearance in 2019 was unable to compete due to Covid concerns and travel restrictions.

23-year-old Fu Shuai of China and Nick Verschuren of the Netherlands both tallied 4+6 in four games to top the scoring charts. China’s Fu Jiang also collected 10 points, with three goals and seven assists in just three games. The directorate awards went to Vilim Rosandic, Croatia (best goalkeeper), Jordy Verkiel, Netherlands (best defender) and Fu Jiang, China (best forward).

Structural damage caused by an earthquake in 2020 on Zagreb’s main rink Dom Sportova saw the tournament being relocated across River Sava. It was inside the spartan surroundings of Zagreb’s Velesajam Ice Rink that a new chapter of China’s World Championship history would be written.

Blueliner Kelin Zhou and forward Shen Jialei replaced Dannisi Auxibofu and Rudy Ying from China’s Olympic roster in Beijing. Another notable omission was netminder Jieruimi Shimisi. Ouban Yongli, who was in the net during five Olympic periods, took over as the first-choice goalie. Playing full minutes in Zagreb, the 22-year-old recorded a save percentage of 95.60 and a GAA of 1.00.

Backup goalie Han Pengfei remained as one of only three players who skated for China at their most recent World Championship in Belgrade in 2019. Back then China had avoided relegation by a whisker. Three years on, this new-look China team was in a class of its own up at the top.

China’s key game in the Croatian capital came in their second game against the Netherlands. Their most recent meeting at this level in 2018 had seen Netherlands blank China 7-0. With the Dutch now being underdogs, they fearlessly set out facing China in a fast-paced first frame.

Outshooting their European opponents 15-4 in the first frame, China struck first blood with 2:17 left of the period. Jian An picked up the puck in his defensive zone rounded his own net, fed Jieke Kailiaosi with a pass his father, the former NHL great Chris Chelios, would have been proud of. Jian An collected it at full speed to burst through a Dutch rearguard caught off-guard to clinically dispatch low to get China off the mark.

Ten seconds before the end of the first period, China scored again. Ruian Sipulaoer bounced a cross ice pass to Taile Wang who brought it down with his hand, picked out Jialei Shen in front of the Dutch net who outmuscled Verkiel before scoring on his rebound to double China´s lead behind 25-year-old netminder Ruud Leeuwesteijn.

Diego Hofland, making his first World Championship at the age of 31, clanged one off the post for the Netherlands only 90 seconds into the middle frame. But once again it was China being clinical in front of the net as the period wore on. They were three goals up at 5:02 of the middle frame. Jieke Kailiaosi fired a wrister and on the rebound from Leeuwesteijn, 37-year-old veteran Jinguang Ye grabbed the puck, turned around past Ties van Soest of the Dutch defence to dispatch home China’s third.

Skating with an all-Dutch born roster, the Netherlands had arrived to Zagreb with ten debutants at this level. One of those, 23-year-old blueliner Noah Muller, instigated the move offering the men in orange and white a lifeline late in the second period. Behind China’s net, he picked out Verschuren in the slot who showed great composure burying it top shelf at 16:17.

The lively Taile Wang capped a fine afternoon for China at 6:36 of the third frame. He got his third point of the afternoon as he raced past Mike Collard to score at the back door from a pass by Ruian Sipulaoer. Firmly in control of the proceedings, China closed the scoring with 2:56 left to play. Fu Jiang lobbed a backhand pass out of his defensive zone over three Dutch players and onto the path of Fui Shuai who from the face off circle to the right of Leuwesteijn finished high to close the scoring at 5-1.

“This would be the first game at this level I’ve experienced with this kind of tempo, so it was a pretty good hockey game for Division IIA,” said the Dutch head coach Doug Mason, who first coached the Netherlands back in 1993 and experienced a game or two at this level.

“Our players weren’t afraid at all, they wanted to put pressure on China whenever they had the opportunity to and wanted to try things. China’s second one was a cheesy goal. The fifth one too, but our goalie made some really good stops so they could have had other goals. The bottom line regardless of the score, is that I am very happy that our guys went out to play.”

Equally content with his performance and relishing every moment in Zagreb was China’s Zheng Enlai.

“It’s my second time representing China. The Olympics was my first. This setup at this tournament is not quite on the same level as the Olympics, but once you are out on the ice and representing your country it’s just an awesome experience,” he said.

Born in British Columbia, the 25-year-old is one of the so-called heritage players on China’s roster who has returned to his roots to bring the promise of a new dawn for Chinese hockey.

“It is awesome not just for myself but also for my family and my grandparents,” he said. “I still have a lot of family in China. They even tried to call me just a few seconds ago. They are really happy for me and I am happy that I have the option to do this.”

Throughout the history of international hockey, national team programs have been looking at various ways to speed up their progress. The Netherlands during the 1970s and Croatia from the last decade are just two examples. But despite the superiority of the Chinese team in Zagreb, head coach Zanatta dismisses any claim that China would now frantically start climbing up the divisions. Next up they will skate at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B.

“I’ve been through this with Italy, both as a player and as a manager and it’s very difficult. This is one level and it’s still a battle as you saw against Spain and the next level is even more difficult,” Zanatta said.

“I think we are taking steps in the right direction. But you need a lot of patience in hockey. It’s a sport that requires time. You aren’t wearing shoes you are wearing skates, so people forget about the dynamics. But China has great infrastructure and obviously, they are going to have to continue working with the youth and kids and I think it looks good.”