Exclusive-Olympics-China’s long, strange Olympic hockey trip ends, next stop uncertain – Metro US

Exclusive-Olympics-China’s long, strange Olympic hockey trip ends, next stop uncertain

FILE PHOTO: Ice Hockey – Men’s Prelim. Round – Group
FILE PHOTO: Ice Hockey – Men’s Prelim. Round – Group A – Germany v China

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s unlikely Olympic ice hockey journey, one of the biggest curiosities of the Beijing Games, ended with four losses in four matches, temporary citizenships, and an uncertain future.

The home team relied entirely on a roster of players from the Kunlun Red Star franchise in Russia’s top league and its core of 15 foreign-born players. They logged almost all of the ice time and kept the team competitive, but fuelled constant questions about their citizenship, which they mostly avoided.

Foreign players were asked to apply to become Chinese citizens in time for the Olympics and given assurances that paperwork would be taken care of, two of them said, but at least one player said he did not have to give up his passport.

Now, Chinese authorities and Kunlun Red Star, owned by a Hong Kong energy billionaire, must decide how much more to invest in a national side that is ranked 32nd globally in a bid to qualify in four years for the 12-team Olympic tournament, presumably with more home-grown talent.

Their Olympic duties over, several players told Reuters they don’t know exactly what’s next for Kunlun, which plays in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).

“From what I’ve heard, we plan on continuing the programme and we’re going to be making a push to keep growing the game in China and help China move up the world rankings,” said California-born Cory Kane, who joined Kunlun five years ago as a “heritage” player – he has Chinese roots through his mother.

“But they haven’t confirmed anything on where exactly we’ll be playing, or if they’re going to be playing in the KHL or not,” he told Reuters after scoring both China goals in the 7-2 loss on Tuesday night to Canada that ended its tournament.

Chinese sports officials did not respond to requests for comment and Kunlun Red Star declined to comment.

Kunlun has had a turbulent run since its founding in 2016 by Hong Kong-based Billy Ngok, soon after Beijing won its bid to host the Olympics.

In March 2017, Kunlun signed a “China Ice Hockey 2022 plan” with China’s General Sports Administration to develop and help produce a Chinese team. The Olympics and an automatic place as hosts were in its sights.

Ngok could not be reached for comment.


Kunlun was plagued by instability, including moving from Beijing to Shanghai, then back to Beijing, flying vast distances to compete in the far-flung KHL. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team has been based in Moscow due to China’s strict border controls.

There were competing strategies among club management, its mainly foreign coaches and the government-run Chinese Ice Hockey Association (CIHA), said Mark Simon, a Canadian consultant for Kunlun until early 2020.

“It’s just a lot of moving parts, you know, going in different directions,” he said.

Personnel turnover was high. In 2020, many Russian players were brought in for a season. This past season saw an influx of home-grown Chinese players.

“It was really wild, like there would be games where guys play really well. In the next game they would not even play because they want to play a native Chinese guy or mainland Chinese guy to get them experience playing games,” said a former player who declined to be identified.

The team’s performance suffered, forcing the sport’s governing body to reconsider China’s participation in the Olympics before finally allowing it. Kunlun has by far the worst KHL record this year.


Late last year, foreign players were asked to sign documents that would enable them to become Chinese citizens for the duration of the Beijing Games, five people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

China does not ordinarily allow dual citizenship.

One document seen by Reuters, an apparent attempt to assuage the concerns of a player, said Red Star Culture & Sports Holding Ltd in Hong Kong would handle Chinese citizenship arrangements and cover legal fees and support if he faced any legal issues around restoring his Canadian nationality after the Games.

It also said if the player gets stuck in China because of a “passport related issue” he would receive food, accommodation in Shenzhen and transport, and from Aug. 1, 2022, a coaching job until he was able to return to Canada.

The dollar value of compensation was left blank, and one former player said none of them signed it.

Several players decided to opt out of the Games.

But after what one described as “back and forth” discussion, many decided to proceed with their applications for Chinese citizenship. The player said he did not have to turn over his passport, and had not received a Chinese one.

“I was not handed it. I was told we have a Chinese passport for sport reasons, like a sport passport,” he said.

China’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

The China team received an ovation from the home crowd after frustrating heavily-favoured Canada until late in its final game, and the players repeatedly expressed pride in representing China, gratitude for the opportunity and a commitment to continuing to grow hockey in the country.

Kane, 31, whose career has taken him from Ferris State University in Michigan to the North American minor leagues and the Czech Republic, said the Olympics was the highlight amid what he described as “tough times” over the last five years.

“Every year I think we had one new coach, some bad losing streaks, a lot of guys in and out of the locker room, and there’s just a lot of other stuff that goes in the background, but it was all worth it,” he said.

“We got here and that opening ceremony – that was crazy – probably top five moments of my life”.

(Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard and Tony Munroe; Additional reporting by Steve Keating; Editing by Ken Ferris)