Beijing 2022 Olympics: Chinese hockey players hope to do well without NHL stars facing them

They came close to being kicked out of their own Games, before risking humiliation in front of NHL stars, but the Chinese will take part in the 2022 Olympic Games ice hockey tournament (Feb 4-20) and may escape to three routs in as many matches. Even before the first puck slides on the Olympic ice rink in Beijing, the national team, made up of players born in China and abroad, will have gone through a series of difficult ups and downs.

The latest twist dates back to last month, when the North American Ice Hockey League (NHL) finally decided that its players would not go to Beijing so as not to jeopardize its championship disrupted by the resumption of the pandemic. Bad news for the 2022 Olympics and ice hockey fans, but a relief for the Chinese who occupy a modest 32nd place in the world rankings: they will face in the formidable Group A Germany, Canada and the United States of America, without their best players playing in the NHL.

« It’s good for the Chinese, who may have better results »observes Li Longmou, who will commentate the hockey tournament for national television CCTV.

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bottom of table

Fielding a national team worthy of the name remains an ambitious goal for China, which is behind in winter sports and has invested little in ice hockey, as it has been able to do in sports such as basketball or football. The awarding of the Winter Games in 2015 signaled a wake-up call: a professional team was created and authorized to play in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), the Russian championship considered the best in the world after the NHL Nord- American.

To strengthen the selection, the team, called Kunlun Red Star, went to North America to recruit hockey players of Chinese origin. Several of them should play at the Beijing Olympics. But the performances are lagging behind: since 2016, the team has finished every season at the bottom of the table and even in last place in the Eastern Conference in 2020-21 with a record of 13 wins in 60 matches.

« Good for no one »

The disappointments of the Chinese hockey players led the International Federation last September to threaten the host country with exclusion for « insufficient level of sport ». The host country is in principle automatically qualified, but « Seeing a team get beaten 15-0 is not good for anyone, not for China, not for ice hockey »then confided to AFP Luc Tardif, the president of the Federation.

At the beginning of November, the International Federation finally announced that the team could participate in “its” Olympics. Second good news a month later with the announcement of the absence of NHL stars, such as Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and other Alex Ovechkin. That « radically reshuffles the cards », observes Mark Dreyer, a sports expert in China. China will certainly struggle to achieve a victory, « but the scores won’t be as bad for her as one might have feared. »

Beijing is counting on the 2022 Games to root the culture of winter sports in the country. For Li Longmou, a decent performance by the national team could help popularize ice hockey. For many Chinese, « interest in a sport depends on the results of the national team », he notes, adding that most fans do not care if foreigners make up a good part of the workforce. For the time being, only 5,000 young people regularly practice ice hockey in China, estimates Li Longmou, but their number is growing. « The growth of ice hockey is definitely going in the right direction. »

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