By Geoff Nichols – The Hockey Writers

What is going on in China? Thankfully, this will not be a politically-charged piece but rather an attempt to figure out everything the Chinese Ice Hockey Association and the people behind Kunlun Red Star are doing to ramp up the level of hockey in China and the strength of China’s men’s and women’s national teams. There is a lot going on…maybe?

It all started prior to the 2016-17 season with the aforementioned Kunlun Red Star joining the Kontinental Hockey League. The plan was to sign Chinese players or ethnic Chinese from superior hockey nations who would then become naturalized citizens.

This is not a new plan for nations that find themselves lower on the IIHF World Rankings than they would like, but it is likely the most ambitious as Beijing will host the Winter Olympics in a little over four years and the Chinese expect to medal in at least women’s hockey. Currently, Kunlun Red Star has only two players on their roster who have Chinese citizenship: Zach Yuen and Rudi Ying.

China already had a team in an international league with the China Dragon competing in Asia League Ice Hockey, a team comprised mostly of members of the men’s national team with a few imports sprinkled in. “Had” is the key word as that team folded this offseason. That would seem like a step back until you realize the team perennially finished in last place in the standings with the low point being 2013-14 with regulation losses in all 42 games and a goal differential of minus-282.

Expanding the Men’s Program to Fix the Past

China will now see its number of professional men’s teams jump to a total of three. In addition to Kunlun Red Star, in 2017-18 there will be two Chinese teams in the Vysshaya Hokkeinaya Liga (VHL), also known as the Supreme Hockey League in English. There will be a Kunlun-branded team in Harbin, one of the long-time Chinese hockey hotbeds, called KRS Heilongjiang as well as Tsen Tou Jilin. KRS Heilongjiang will serve as Kunlun Red Star’s VHL affiliate but Vladimir Krechin, GM of Kunlun Red Star has stated that the club will work with Tsen Tou Jilin as well.

In the Russian Ice Hockey Federation’s announcement of KRS Heilongjiang joining the VHL, it was reported that 15 Chinese players were at the event announcing the team and those players would make up the core of the KRS Heilongjiang roster.

If a mostly-Chinese team could not climb out of the cellar of ALIH, I do not see how having two Chinese teams in a league with a higher overall level of play, like the VHL, could possibly lead to better results. Their only hope would seem to be splitting the members of the Chinese national team between the two VHL clubs and bring in a larger number of imports to help not only the clubs’ league standings but with the coaching and skill development of Chinese players.

Currently, KRS Heilongjiang has 38 players on their roster, according to Tsen Tou Jilin has zero publicly confirmed signings.

Looking West for Women’s Hockey

Perhaps the move made by the KRS group that received the most attention was the announcement that the newly formed Kunlun Red Star women’s team would join the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. The team will play in China and will employ that earlier idea of using foreign players to help coach Chinese players or be an “ambassador” for the sport.

Because the team will be based in China, the team will travel to North America multiple times to play their away games against the league’s Canada and United States based teams. Now recent developments make it look as though they may not need to leave China for some of their away games.

Chinese news outlets, and later the CWHL itself in a now-deleted tweet, announced a second Chinese team would be joining the CWHL. Not much else has come out in the Chinese or North American press about the potential second team and the CWHL has been silent on their end. Michelle Jay of The Ice Garden has put together a thorough timeline of events for the whole CWHL-China situation.

Globalization to Grow Domestically

It seems that the Chinese Ice Hockey Federation and the KRS execs are committed to placing their teams in leagues where they feel the team will have the best chance to grow the level of Chinese hockey ahead of the 2022 Beijing Games. They passed over closer women’s leagues in Russia and Europe to place a team, or two, in the CWHL and it appears as though the same approach has been taken with regard to youth development.

The relationship with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation will continue with men’s U20 team battling with teams across Russia and Eastern Europe in the Molodezhnaya Hokkeinaya Liga (MHL), also known by the creative name of Junior Hockey League.

The women’s junior team, however, will be completely based in North America. The New England Women’s Junior Hockey League recently rebranded to become the Eastern Women’s Hockey Conference and announced the league’s lineup, which will feature Kunlun Red Star Junior. The release also states that all teams in the EWHC will be based on the eastern seaboard of Canada and the US. Kunlun initially announced plans for the team to join the Junior Women’s Hockey League, but those plans have obviously changed.

The same press release said that Kunlun Red Star planned to enter a U18 men’s team in a North American league called the “Northwest Hockey League,” but no information about such a team is readily available. If that team comes to fruition, any North American ethnic Chinese players on it, or the women’s team in the EWHC, would need to play two years in China between now and the 2022 Olympics to meet IIHF requirements for naturalized citizens if they wish to represent China.