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Putting some Finnish on China's chances

By MURRAY GREIG | China Daily | Updated: 2018-03-26 09:17
Team China, featuring players invited to Kunlun Red Star's evaluation camp in Beijing, dropped a 5-2 decision to the Belarus U25 national team at Ao Zhong Ice Sports Club on March 22. China's national squad is preparing for the April 23-29 IIHF Division II Group A world championships in Tilburg, the Netherlands. CHINA DAILY

New head coach has high hopes for Red Star-and national team

There was no shortage of inspiration for invitees to Kunlun Red Star's inaugural evaluation camp for China's national men's hockey team, which wrapped up at Ao Zhong Ice Sports Club in Beijing last week.

More than $250,000 worth of historic memorabilia on loan from the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto was on display during the 10-day camp, including jerseys and equipment used by the sport's "holy trinity" of Canadian superstars: Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky.

Whether or not the iconic items are imbued with mystical powers is debatable, but they were a reminder to the 30 players auditioning for new Red Star and Team China head coach Jussi Tapola that perseverance is rewarded … and greatness endures.

"I am very honored to be invited to coach Kunlun Red Star and to help guide China's national team," said Tapola, a 43-year-old Finn who took the reins after Bobby Carpenter's abbreviated stint ended when the team's second season in the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League concluded three weeks ago.

Carpenter had been promoted from assistant head coach after Mike Keenan was fired in early December.

Last year Red Star signed an exclusive agreement with the Chinese Ice Hockey Association to build the men's, women's, Under-20 men's and Under-18 men's and women's national teams. Tapola's immediate task is to assemble a competitive squad for the April 23-29 IIHF Division II Group A world championships in Tilburg, the Netherlands, where China will challenge Australia, Belgium, Iceland, Serbia and the host.

"This is an ambitious project and the guys here have gained priceless experience over the past two years. It's just amazing how much the KHL has improved hockey in Eurasia," said Tapola, who served as an assistant bench boss for Team Finland at last month's Winter Olympics in South Korea.

"I am sure we have a good chance of building a really competitive team, while at the same time making a big contribution to the progress and development of Chinese hockey in the run-up to the 2022 Games.

"This is a very big twin challenge-to achieve good results in such a strong league and to nurture and develop our Chinese players. Our dream is that in five or 10 years, China will be seen as a hockey power."

One of the players Tapola is excited about is 25-year-old defenseman Zach Yuen, who was born and raised in Canada and is shaping up as the anchor of Team China's blueline corps.

"I grew up in Vancouver but my roots are in China. I moved here in 2016 to sign with Red Star, and I would be very proud to fight for China at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing," said Yuen, who in 2016 made history as the first Chinese player to score a goal in the KHL.

"I think that's the dream for every player at this camp. For all of us, it has been an unforgettable and valuable experience. Having local players and overseas players of Chinese origin gathered together is amazing.

"All of us learned a lot from the camp and our new coach-and we want to keep learning. In less than four years Beijing will host the Winter Olympics, and that means we have to make the most of every opportunity to improve in order for our dreams to come true."

Another highly touted defenseman who hopes to represent China in 2022 is 21-year-old Ty Schultz. His grandmother, Zheng Fengrong, was the first female Chinese athlete to set a world record when she high-jumped 1.77 meters in 1975.

Born in Canada to a Chinese mother and German father, Schultz started playing hockey at age 3, and in 2007 he starred for a Beijing youth team that won an international tournament in Montreal.

Schultz played three seasons for the Medicine Hat Tigers in Canada's top amateur league and will likely be one of Tapola's picks for the next month's IIHF tournament in the Netherlands, along with fellow Vancouver native Zhang Dehan, who skated for the Red Star Juniors this season.

"I grew up playing hockey in Canada, but I've always had a Chinese passport," Zhang, 19, said after the Latvia-based team wrapped up its campaign in the MHL (Russian development league) earlier this month.

"This season was great for my development, and I hope that carries over with an opportunity to play for the national team at the Beijing Olympics."

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