A Bad Hockey Team Complicates China’s Rise to Superpower Status

With seven months until the Beijing Winter Olympics, Brandon Yip thought he’d be on the ice with the Chinese national hockey team by now.

Instead, the former National Hockey League right wing is home in Boston, watching the Stanley Cup playoffs and fantasizing about helping China at least save face. Winning is probably out of the question. But still, Yip says, he’d like to try.

A Bad Hockey Team Complicates China’s Rise to Superpower Status

“Ever since the opportunity of playing in the Olympics for China came up, I find myself daydreaming during NHL games,” said Yip, a Canadian who is three-quarters Chinese and one-quarter Irish. “I think about what it would be like to play against all these world-class athletes again.”

When Beijing first hosted the Olympics in 2008, China used the event to celebrate its new economic openness; it also made it a national priority to dominate the medal table, as befits a global superpower. Thirteen years later, China is facing calls for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Games in protest of human rights abuses, as well as all the concerns that come with hosting an international event before the pandemic has truly receded.

Team China is also expected to fare poorly, in hockey and almost everything else. Outside of figure and speed skating, the country has almost no winter sports tradition, and it’s not expected to do any better than it did in the last Winter Games in Pyeongchang, when the team earned nine medals overall. Its best hope for gold in 2022 is Eileen Gu, who was born and raised in the U.S. and joined the Chinese team after naturalizing in 2019.

A Bad Hockey Team Complicates China’s Rise to Superpower Status

Even so, as the host, China’s athletes and teams are automatically entitled to compete, including in the high-profile, ultra-competitive 12-team men’s hockey tournament. That will put China, ranked No. 32 in the world, just ahead of Australia and Israel, on a collision course with teams from the U.S. and Canada, possibly stacked with NHL players. It’s created an almost existential question for the country: Is it better to have played and lost -- badly, to one’s geopolitical rivals, on a global stage -- than never to have played at all?

The Olympics have often been a proxy for geopolitics, if a gauzy, highly produced one. What’s at stake is more than a medal, said Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University and author of “Beyond the Final Score: the Politics of Sport in Asia.” “The Olympics for China are always a way to demonstrate the success of the party and the success of the state,” he said. “When you host the Olympics you’re hosting the world. China is at the center of the universe for those two weeks.”

In general, the Olympics has made plenty of room for a scrappy team of misfits that gets out there and gives its all. No one cared that the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team wasn’t very good at bobsledding. In 2016, South Korea’s national hockey team played with a mix of local, foreign and heritage players, including North Koreans, lost all its games but won the hearts of fans at home and abroad.

It’s not clear whether that kind of global goodwill could extend to China’s athletes at a time when the country’s relations with Western democracies are at a nadir. Chinese fans will root for the team no matter what, according to Chen Lu, a former figure skating champion who won bronze at the Olympics in 1994 and 1998. Now, Chen, who is a member of the Beijing Winter Olympics athletes’ committee, runs a hockey and figure skating school in the Chinese capital.

A Bad Hockey Team Complicates China’s Rise to Superpower Status

“Chinese soccer isn’t great, but fans still give them lots of support,” she said, pointing to the men’s national team, ranked 77th in the world. “I think no matter what, the Chinese fans will cheer for them.”

Chinese sports officials haven’t indicated that the team would do anything other than play. If it can include heritage players is an open question. The International Ice Hockey Federation would have to waive its traditional eligibility rules, as it did for South Korea. Typically, foreign nationals would have to play domestically for a certain period of time in order to qualify for the Olympic team.

“I think the IIHF wants the heritage players to come so we can help them out and there won’t be lopsided games,” said Yip, who played on Boston University’s 2009 national championship team. Luke Lockhart and Paris O’Brien have said they also hope to play for China. The IIHF didn’t reply to emailed requests for comment.

To be fair, the South Korean team didn’t fare too badly on the ice. Its worst showing was an 8-0 drubbing by Switzerland; the rest of the games were within a few goals. “The scoreboard showed we didn’t outscore the opponent -- and we should have beat the Czechs -- but we worked extremely hard and competed very well,” said Jim Paek, a former NHL player and South Korea’s coach in 2018. “In my opinion, we were successful.”

The road could be harder for Team China if NHL players are allowed to join their respective national teams. They didn’t play in Pyeongchang, and the league is expected to decide soon whether it will send pros this time, as the IIHF wants. If they do, it would raise the level of play and audience interest. It will also make it a lot harder for China to save face on the ice.

“The only chance China won’t embarrass itself is if the NHL doesn’t send any players and the China national team includes heritage players,” said Mark Simon, a hockey consultant who lived in Beijing for more than a decade and is now a hockey coach in Toronto.

While Simon thought China might choose to skip the hockey rather than “get destroyed,” Curt Dracz, who runs a sports and entertainment company in Beijing, thought the scores might not be overly lopsided as teams facing China would want to avoid rubbing it in.

When Beijing was first awarded the Winter Games in 2015, China seemed more interested in building a competitive hockey team. In early 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to set up an ice-hockey team in the capital, to play in the Russian professional league. The Kunlun Red Star, as the team was called, was supposed to attract world-class talent and develop local players. After several management and coaching changes, the team is currently last in the Kontinental Hockey League’s 12-team East Division.

The national team hasn’t done much better. At the last World Championships in 2019, it competed in the second division, meaning China didn’t face the powers of the sport such as the U.S., Canada and Russia. Instead, it went on to lose to Australia, Spain, Serbia and Croatia in close contests, before defeating Belgium in its final match. Two years earlier at the Asian winter games, against stiffer competition, Team China failed to score in its three matches, getting walloped by Japan 14-0, South Korea 10-0, and Kazakhstan 8-0.

The China Ice Hockey Association, which oversees the national team, declined to comment and asked that queries be forwarded to the Winter Sports Center. The General Administration of Sport, which manages the center, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Hosting the Olympic though, is also about business. President Xi Jinping has said the Winter Games are an opportunity to promote the country’s nascent ski industry and other snow sports. According to Beijing-based Daxue Consulting, the government hopes to turn 300 million people into active winter sports enthusiasts by 2025 and grow the value of the industry to 1 trillion yuan ($155 billion). China hopes to have at least 650 skating venues, including 500 new ones, 800 ski resorts and 3,500 kilometers of ski track by the time of the games, it said.

A Bad Hockey Team Complicates China’s Rise to Superpower Status

Hockey’s also become more popular, in part because of Andong Song, the first Chinese player to be selected in the NHL draft. There are now more than 10 hockey associations in the country, compared to just a handful in the past. Li Longmou, a sports commentator for China Central Television and Song’s agent, estimated the business of ice hockey in China to be worth some 1 billion yuan, with 600 million yuan spent on youth training and another 400 million yuan in operating ice rinks.

Some cities are also making winter sports mandatory in elementary and middle schools. In Beijing alone, minor league hockey started out in 2008 with four teams and 60 players; today, there are more than 200 clubs and 3,000 kids playing in places like the Chen Lu International Skating Center, where former Canadian professional hockey player Jon Howse teaches kids as young as five how to hit a puck.

“There are so many more new arenas going up all the time,” he said. “The coaching level has improved a lot. A lot of these kids at a young age are better than what you see in Canada because they train so much.”

In Boston, Yip could care less about the politics of it all. He spent three years with Kunlun hoping for a crack at playing hockey for China, and ultimately for a chance to do for the sport what Yao Ming did for basketball.

“Maybe I can inspire a young Chinese boy to play hockey and maybe one day see him on the TV playing in the NHL or Winter Olympics saying ‘I saw the 2022 Olympics Chinese Men’s hockey team play and wanted to be just like them and better!’”

Expectations for the Chinese hockey team are so low that anything less than a blowout would be considered a success, said Cha, who is currently the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The U.S. and Canadian teams could even be seen as “bullies” if they run up the score, he said.

“If they’re predicted to lose 50-0 and they lose 10-2, that would be considered a huge victory,” Cha said. “And if, even in losing, the skaters go around the rink waving the Chinese flag, I’m sure the fans will go crazy. It can actually be a very interesting narrative which we don’t really see in China.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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