Wednesday, 6 July 2016

China Won't Go Quietly

The image to the right is the logo for the new Beijing-based KHL franchise. The Kunlun Red Star's inclusion into the KHL means that the Russian hockey league now includes eight different countries, but the Chinese entry has a long-term purpose as a means to an end. Beijing is gearing up for the 2022 Winter Olympics, and it seems that the Red Star team is the first step in establishing itself as a hockey nation. China has taken part in international events before, but it seems that they are looking to erase any notion of being an also-ran by strengthening its hockey culture by jumping into the KHL. Will it work? We're about to find out as the team has begun recruiting and signing players for the upcoming 2016-17 season!

There is a method to the madness with this Chinese team. The Asian Ice Hockey League features the China Dragons who, for the most part, are national team players with very little experience. As a result, they don't see a lot of playoff action as teams from South Korea and Japan certainly have better depth. The Dragon finished dead-last in the AIHL this season, so they do need some help if they want to ave a good showing in their own country's Olympic Games. That being said, adding a few skilled national players to the Red Star team will certainly help them get better as they battle what are arguably the best teams in Europe and Asia.

Of course, this won't guarantee success at the Olympics, but there is more to China's plan. With the introduction of the KHL team, the country will also fund free clinics for the majority of China's youth where they will be introduced and encouraged to play hockey. According to the IIHF, "there are 116 youth teams with approximately 1,700 players" in a country that has a population of over a billion people. Getting more kids playing will certainly expand China's hockey program exponentially if they engage with that younger generation.

Some of this planning is in response to China's failure in qualifying for the PyeongChang Olympiad. China suffered embarrassing defeats at the hands of Serbia, Spain, and Iceland - three nations known for anything but hockey - last November, and there is concern from the IOC that the Chinese squad will get blown out against the powerhouses if there isn't some marked improvement. With six years to develop some talent, the Chinese are trying to get ahead of the curve when it comes to staying competitive with the likes of Canada, Russia, the US, Sweden, and Finland.

Let's be honest: the talent pool from what China would be drawing is quite shallow right now. Brandon Yip, Dennis Yan, Andong Song, Zach Yuen, and Brandon Wong would make up the most experienced players with Chinese heritage in North American hockey right now. Song was the first Chinese player ever taken in the NHL Entry Draft when he was chosen by the New York Islanders last season, so it's not like there's a Crosby or McDavid hiding out in the Far East. Clearly, there has to be some additional work done by China to continue to produce hockey players that will make them competitive at the Olympics.

China's plan is lofty and its goal might be a bit of a pipe dream to complete in six years. Perhaps they can surprise a country like Latvia, Kazakhstan, or Slovenia, but they're most likely going to take their lumps against any one of the favorites. In any case, beating any of those teams while ranked 38th in the world would be a major accomplishment for China's national program. They probably won't medal and they're a long shot to even make it out of the round-robin stage, but China is throwing everything they have into its program to see if they can pull off a miracle like Belarus did against Sweden in 2002.

China has six years to get themselves on-track and move up the world rankings. The Kunlun Red Star might just accelerate that progress if they can find some success in the KHL.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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