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More hope than fear for China's hockey challenge

China Daily | Updated: 2021-11-19 09:19
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Coach, fans back 2022 participation as doubts persist over team's standard

Fans of Chinese team Kunlun Red Star cheer on the players during a Kontinental Hockey League game in Mytishchi, Russia on Wednesday. Red Star lost 4-1 to Avangard Omsk in a contest used to assess the standard of China's Olympic hopefuls. REUTERS

Amid concerns that China's men's hockey players are not good enough to compete on home ice in next year's Winter Games, veteran amateur players in Beijing are bracing for a rough ride but still hope they can see the team in action.

China's women's team is internationally competitive, but the men would be unlikely to join the Beijing Olympics in February without the automatic spot granted to host nations.

The players hoping to make China's Olympic team lost a second trial game in the colors of the Kunlun Red Star franchise against a Russian club on Wednesday.

International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) officials observed Red Star's 4-1 loss to Avangard Omsk in the Kontinental Hockey League. Red Star's 5-4 overtime loss to Amur Khabarovsk in another KHL game two days earlier was also used to assess the competitive strength of the team. Kunlun has a 7-22 record in the Russia-based league.

Kunlun coach Ivano Zanatta said the games were evidence his team meets the Olympic standard.

"Definitely not second to a Norway or a Denmark or Latvia. We're equal to those countries,"Zanatta said. "Today and the last game they proved they have the character and the ability and they have the right to participate in their own Olympics."

The IIHF will decide on Nov 25 whether China will participate, after raising concerns over an "insufficient sporting standard".

Norway is waiting as a replacement if needed.

Zanatta said the club was building team spirit between its foreign-born players-many of whom have Chinese heritage-and the players born and raised in China who are on the roster and practice squad.

"There's a great union made, I would have to say, through the months here, and there's a great group of guys, there's a great mix. And there's been a lot of sharing of Chinese culture," Zanatta said.

"It would be best if China's team joins in, otherwise it's meaningless. You're the host nation, you get in without a ticket," Ying Guosheng, 62, said as he strapped on shin pads at a rink in northern Beijing.

China's first-round opponents would include powerhouses United States and Canada, as well as 2018 silver medalist Germany-likely heralding a series of crushing defeats for the host.

Elite National Hockey League players will also be able to compete in Beijing, unlike at the Pyeongchang Games in 2018, boosting the US and Canada.

"It's a once-in-a-thousand-years chance," said Ying's teammate Yu Xin. "The team could experience the atmosphere of the event, and other teams' professionalism and technique, and find where they're lagging behind. Brains and strength are both essential. They shouldn't be arrogant or rash."

Yu's club is made up of Beijing locals who first played as teenagers on a frozen lake in the heart of the city in the 1970s.

They reformed a few years ago, partly because Beijing won the bid for the Olympics. The players plan to watch the action, wearing their uniforms, when the Games begin.

Back when they first learned how to skate, Beijing only had one ice hockey rink, said captain Mei Chunhui, adding that it was usually only chilled for the occasional national-level game.

Most of the year, they trained on land. Skates were often brought back by parents who had studied in the Soviet Union.

Now Beijing has plenty of rinks after a boom in investment, underpinned by a government pledge to get 300 million Chinese involved in winter sports in the buildup to the Games.

But hockey is still a niche sport, especially outside the country's chilly northeastern provinces. Club members are realistic about the national team's chances.

"China could be considered a 'dark horse' if it just scores one goal against a strong team like the US or Russia or Germany-that would be quite the honor," Yu said. "If our efforts and sweat aren't wasted then that's enough... the disparity is like that between a primary school kid and a PhD student."

China is not nearly as strong a power in the Winter Olympics as it is at the Summer Games. Chinese athletes claimed a solitary gold medal through short-track speed skater Wu Dajing in Pyeongchang, although that is expected to improve next year.

But Yu has high expectations for the women's hockey team.

"I really hope China's women's team can reach the final three, they're awesome," he said.

China's women twice reached the semifinals of the world championships in the 1990s and played in the bronze-medal game at the 1998 Olympics, one of three Winter Games at which they have competed.


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