I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time following minor-league ice hockey overseas, though no one ever expects such eccentric fandom to come in handy on a mainstream blog. Especially in late autumn and early winter, there’s so much going on in sports that Georgetown vs Syracuse can’t draw a big television rating any more than Billy Gunn vs Bryan Danielson can. There are fun times to be had learning about small-time hockey leagues past and present. It’s a gas, and it’s also off-topic (and professionally worthless) for an “NHL” blogger to carry-on about Asia’s progress on the pond, for example, or the comparative strength of British hockey.
Until now, that is. Following months of North American hockey headlines like “The NHL is Going to the Olympics, But Is It Really?” and “6 Reasons We
Hope Think the NHL Will Reverse Its Olympic Decision” and of course the occasional “Olympic Hockey Sucks Even Though Team Finland Would Beat Ottawa By 200 Goals,” the cheery, optimistic, and wise NHL media has found another obsession over the past 2 weeks – kicking an overmatched Team China off the Men’s Ice Hockey ledger for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing.
My formerly “useless” knowledge of obscure international hockey is literally perfect for this kind of topic! As it was put in Wayne’s World, “What useful information that turned out to be. Seemed extraneous at the time.”
Hope no one’s expecting a “nerdy IIHF article” on pond shinny at the Beijing Games. What’s fascinating about China’s grim Men’s Ice Hockey scenario is how – softened by the crisis of COVID-19 – federations are loosening the typically iron-clad restrictions of Olympic ice hockey in deference to China’s program. The IIHF’s letter-of-the-law decisions have been replaced by common sense. With the 2022 Winter Olympics looming, officials are willing to do whatever it takes to allow Team China to ice a competitive team in Group A vs Canada, Germany, and the USA. Failing that, the IOC has also expressed a willingness to axe China’s participation as the host of Men’s Ice Hockey, and relegate the Chinese to Women’s hockey-only while welcoming Team Norway to the men’s bracket.
A final decision is said to await on November 25th. NHL reporters seem to lean toward replacing China with Norway. Fears are running rampant of “humiliation” games in Group A in which the Canucks or Yankees beat the Olympic hosts by 20 goals each, given that there are incentives to lead the goal-differential race in a short and high-pressure tournament setting.
However, the storyline has more than 1 twist. The recent articles on Team China’s dilemma are lacking key details, and I’ve got a hunch that the gloss-overs and omissions are on account of the writers not really knowing what’s going on. The IOC’s new “let’s figure this out” attitude has brought China’s biggest professional ice hockey brand into the limelight, and could even give the Olympic host (and the real “host” IOC) a significant PR win at a time when China’s international sports-profile is nothing short of creepy.
Team China: Rescued by a Star-Ship?
Those who ask “why didn’t anyone see this coming?” aren’t being unreasonable. The NHLPA nailed down the NHL (kicking and screaming) on a deal for players to skate in the 2022 Winter Olympics years in advance. China, hosting Men’s Ice Hockey as the lowest seed, wasn’t surprised to find Canada, United States, and Germany (aka Sidney Crosby, Austin Matthews, and Leon Draisaitl) waiting to crush the Chinese team in a round-robin.
China’s ice hockey federation did see this coming, long ago. It’s just helpless to turn the nation’s skaters into a world-class unit in a brief span of years. If you visited Elite Prospects and scoured around the USPL and other North American developmental leagues between 2015 and 2019, you would have found rosters stocked with legions of Chinese-American skaters in their late teens and early 20s. That was the nation’s Olympic ice hockey hopefuls in training. Though the project bore ample fruit, Team China is still wanting for big-league talent.
But in a generous turn from other hockey federations, the IIHF community has gotten on board with a potential last-minute fix for China. At long last and under duress, Chinese officials are considering Kunlun Red Star’s entire roster as a souped-up version of “Team China” that could score a goal or 2 in the right circumstances. That’s where the media reports get hazy – does the Chinese federation intend to grant dual-citizenship to all 20-odd current Kunlun Red Star players so that the club team itself can represent the host flag in Beijing, or simply allow for the widest-possible contingent of Chinese-Americans who didn’t originally plan to skate in the Games?
Circumstantial evidence points to the former. The IIHF and IOC attended a special “Olympic test” game last week in which Kunlun Red Star – presumably all of Kunlun Red Star – played KHL rival “Tigers” of Amur Khabarovsk and lost 5-4. American blogs reported that “a few dozen fans” attended the faceoff as if the number of paid spectators represented Red Star’s typical nightly turn-out, naively implying that a hockey franchise would spend millions of yen on Kontinental Hockey League talent, publicity, and branding, along with an arena that holds thousands of spectators, all to accommodate exactly 36 ticket-buyers per game. The Good Old Hockey Game may be taking its time gaining a real foothold in China, but Red Star isn’t quite that unpopular.
In fact, the location of the game isn’t consistent from source to source, with some blogs reporting that Mytishchi Arena outside Moscow hosted the “test” faceoff. Last Monday’s IIHF “summit meeting” at the Amur vs Kunlun contest was arranged hastily, and my suspicion is that the International Olympic Committee kept things quiet in the arena on purpose. There’s plenty of footage of Red Star playing against its KHL opponents this season. Officials wanted to get a look and a listen, to see how well 8 Chinese-American players and 12+ imported talents were able to communicate and obey bench-coaching against a top-level European club.
Red Star’s late comeback and OT loss seems to offer hope that an expanded Chinese roster can compete in Beijing. Focus is naturally on Brandon Yip, a Colorado Avalanche alum who scored in the contest. But it’s Kunlun Red Star’s overall depth and moxie as a KHL brand which point to a potential solid showing in Group A.
KHL skaters serve as the backbone of championship IIHF events, whether or not NHL players are allowed to participate. 4 out of 5 top scorers in 2018’s Men’s Ice Hockey tournament were from the KHL, and 1st-line KHL centers and defensemen are the best in the world at defending against speed on big ice. Remember when Team Canada nearly lost to Latvia at the 2014 Winter Olympics? North American analysts called the outcome “an embarrassment” and “a joke,” except for supposed “anti-European racist” Don Cherry, who praised Team Latvia (and its celebrity head coach at the time) for a marvelous 60-minute checking effort: “Teddy Nolan has those KHL boys playing like crazy!” It never occurred to any Smilin’ Jack podcasters under 60 years old that Dynamo Riga faces elite forwards on Olympic-sized ice every season, while the Calgary Flames do not.
If Kunlun Red Star is allowed to participate wholesale as Team China, then China will have as much legitimacy on the Men’s Ice Hockey pond as half of a dozen teams who contend for World Championship and Olympic bids. Kunlun Red Star’s last-place record in 2021-22 is a point of concern, since the KHL is far less deep in talented teams than the NHL. But the Red Star skated against powerful CSKA Moscow in a 2-game series last month, and split the games 1-1 with a 3-to-5 goal differential. “Horses” could skate with the Ottawa Senators, and certainly with Team Germany. Germany did essentially face a KHL club roster (SKA St. Petersburg plus a handful of CSKA players and Sergei Mozyakin of Metallurg Magnitogorsk) in 2018’s gold medal game, and lost 4-3. Red Star has almost no chance of beating Träger der Adler in Group A with Draisaitl and 6+ other North American pros on board for the Germans this time around. But it won’t be an all-time laughingstock of an outcome.
There’s even hope that the Chinese could manage 10 shots-on-goal and single-digit outcomes against Canada and the United States. Olympic ice produces easy Ws for superior teams from a checking POV, since it’s so hard for an out-matched lineup to pass the puck and get from the boards to the opposing goal crease. However, it doesn’t necessarily create the kind of scoring frenzy that would occur if an NHL club played a weak NCAA team on the small rink at TD Garden. Offense is so arduous in IIHF-style play that Canada’s GM Doug Armstrong won’t want his top-6 forwards grappling tired Chinese defensemen at the 57:34 mark to try to turn a 14-0 lead into a 15-0 lead. Goal differential is important, yes, but Team Canada must balance the urgency to score with other concerns in a gold-medal chase for the ages. A single key injury could alter the podium and hockey history.
Great Britain has managed outcomes like “USA 6, Great Britain 3” in the IIHF World Championships, even though the Brits do not use English-American skaters from the NHL, and ice a lineup that’s comparable to the middle tier of KHL rosters. Caitlin Berry’s EIHL podcast was kindly enough to confirm that Team Great Britain has fared well in exhibitions against the KHL and would probably be favored to defeat the 2021-22 Kunlun Red Star in a serious meeting. (Caitlin’s choice of diction “the Kunlun Red Star” was surprising and funny, since I’ve spent the last several years removing “the” from recaps like “
The Toffees beat the Cherries in a corker” to try to make WagerBop’s UK football handicapping sound like the wonderful old style of British newspapers.)
Those who are quick to say, “The Worlds aren’t a good example, they’re not best on best” are applying binary logic to a 3-dimensional problem. Whether 1% or 99% of the world’s best skaters are willing and available to play, there’s never any such thing as a Super Hall-of-Fame Fantasy Hockey Game. 2022’s Beijing battle could reach the greatest athletic levels that Men’s and Women’s hockey have ever seen. It still won’t be a Super Hall-of-Fame Fantasy scenario because those don’t exist. Players will be snubbed or included who we think shouldn’t have been, like Rob Zaumner skating for Canada’s ill-fated “Dream Team” in 1998. Others will be injured, or get injured. Aging superstars will be upset and fail to reach the medal round. Like the urban myth of the World Championships as a “B” tournament for 19-year-old rookies, the search for a Super Hall-of-Fame Fantasy Hockey Game is an excuse for NHL corporate-brand junkies to ignore and avoid international pond shinny.
Just because World Championship rosters are spotty from team-to-team doesn’t mean every lineup is spotty. For those who doubt that the Worlds present a fantastic sample-size of pre-Beijing score analysis, consider that Russia’s 2019 Worlds roster would easily contend for gold at the 2022 Olympics. (Ilya Kovalchuk was a “ceremonial” scratch, Kirill Kaprizov was a role player, and Ilya Sorokin barely got on the plane. Any questions?) Yet the Russians didn’t score a single solitary goal in a semifinal loss to Finland, and needed about 60 saves from Andrei Vasilevskiy to slip past another KHL-laden team (Czech Republic) for bronze.
Nikita Kucherov and the Red Machine defeated Italy 10-0 in the 2019 World Championships. Team Italy is better organized than Kunlun Red Star, and Italy’s got a handful of pretty good KHL players, but the 3rd and 4th-line Italians can’t carry the jocks of Yip and the best Chinese-American skaters. I expect similar “10-0” type results if Team China 2.0 is allowed to host Men’s Ice Hockey faceoffs against the USA and Canada.
NHL, Olympics Fans Spoiled by Parity
Wagering that Team Norway would lose by 7 goals, not 10, against a elite NHL lineup wouldn’t be a bad bet, but it would also miss the point about as badly as the “best on best” trope does.
Norway has 3-4 experienced North American pros it can rely on, and would have zero chance to defeat the United States or Canada, or in other words, the same hopeless pre-tournament scenario China would face. There’s no nation ranked between #11 and #15 that can compete in Group A, not with Germany’s solid ranks boosted by close to 10 world-class players in February. It’s not as if China takes-up a slot that a contender could’ve had.
Besides, it’s awfully spoiled for the hockey community to act like blow-outs at the Olympics are so prohibitive of a good time. Skiers, divers, and track stars get “blown out” in the Olympics every cycle, and it never seems to hurt the event’s world acclaim and popularity. The Soviet Union’s “14-1” style blow-outs leading to Lake Placid’s medal round in 1980 helped make the “Miracle On Ice” team even more of a sparkling Cinderella.
Look deep into the Men’s Ice Hockey archives if you want to see blow-out scores. Not always in the round-robin either! Canada beat Sweden 11-0 for the gold medals in 1928. Team USA was blanked by the USSR for 1956’s golden bling, and beaten 7-2 in a GMG rematch in 1972. Norway lost to North American teams by a combined score of 14-1 at the 2010 Olympics, a Men’s Ice Hockey tournament in which just half of the Q-Final and semi-final rounds were suspenseful. Still, ice hockey events are among the most parity-filled of the Games.
Good outweighs bad in letting an overmatched host play. Women’s hockey, for example, was dreadfully lacking for international parity when the 1998 Nagano Olympics hosted its high-profile women’s tournament. Canada’s 15-goal victory over Smile Japan was embarrassing enough that Cherry chastised the run-it-up Lady Habs on Coach’s Corner. But look at how the Japanese women’s team used Nagano’s opportunity to learn, recruit, and secure financial backing. Smile Japan would be a front-runner for “Most Improved IIHF Team” since then, earning several Women’s World Championship appearances, avoiding Worlds relegation since 2017, and scoring 2 goals on #1 ranked Team USA (in the 1st period, no less!) during an historic medal-round bid in 2021.
Let the Chinese-American skaters from Kunlun Red Star see just how far the program has to improve to compete with the top NHL players. Like the ranks of FIBA following the Dream Team’s dusting of an entire Men’s Basketball field in Barcelona, the benefits of hard-knocks learning can come faster than expected.
Leading the Sports (and Political) World by Example
Just like Trudy Campbell on Mad Men, it’s time we address the elephant in the room.
Those who believe the 2022 Winter Olympics should be moved out of Beijing, or scrapped altogether, have had their argument legitimized by the state censorship (and likely state-sponsored kidnapping) of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai by a Communist government. WagerBop has argued that Jesse Owens, despite what we now know about Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, was right to go to Munich in 1936 and beat the pants off of Nazi runners at the Olympics. Owens and Team USA could have boycotted Munich over Hitler’s racial prejudice and brutality (known to exist long before the outbreak of World War II), but that’s the kind of provocative move that the Nazis or another militant body-politic might have made in response to a perceived injustice in a host country. If the United States had boycotted “Hitler’s” Olympics, Owens couldn’t have shown all of Europe just how ridiculous and regressive the Third Reich’s racial purification theories were. Hitler’s athletes looked inferior, not superior, and the ’36 Olympics did not belong to him but rather to those who viewed all races of participants equally.
Even if the worst-case scenario is true, and China’s government is censoring, kidnapping, and murdering its brightest young people at the slightest hint of dissent, the worst response would be for the civilized world to either stay away or show up at the Beijing Olympics holding its nose. By painting all Chinese people involved in the Olympics with the same brush as China’s corrupt leaders, America would be assuming a moral stance that wasn’t much better than those whom we’re disgusted by. The fallacy of a having a tribal-war attitude toward China is that it’s Communists, not Capitalists, who supposedly think people are all alike. Beijing can give China a public-relations win in February. It can teach a lot more Chinese onlookers that freedom is the way, much to the chagrin of party officials who think Communist-sponsored athletes will win the medal count easily.
Ronald Reagan’s best idea was to build a “soft” ICBM shield that would disable an enemy’s nuclear attack without having to blow up anything on Earth, a “peace waging” concept that echoes ancient African philosophy. “Sorry, China (or Russia). No big war today. We win. You win. Everybody wins. Let’s have pizza.”
The same “kill ’em with kindness” vibe is evident in how the NHLPA is prodding stuffed-shirts of the Olympic hockey world to make noble decisions. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, NBC Sports, and team owners did everything they could to keep National Hockey League players out of China. They’re headed there in February anyway. The IIHF – and every GM of an international team – likely has major issues with the host nation suiting up a team like Kunlun Red Star and calling it “Team China,” since Red Star has a million-times better chances to score at the Olympics than an all-Chinese roster would have. Yet suddenly, a lot of people seem to agree that artificially beefing-up China’s roster is preferable to other alternatives. There’s an invisible hand that’s working to promote fairness and best possible outcomes on the pond in Beijing, and it’s not Mr. Bettman’s. That’s the best evidence we have that NHL snipers won’t bitterly seek “revenge” for news headlines when facing Team China.
Here’s to showing up to Beijing with smiles, letting the Chinese play hockey with the best 20 guys who’ve been hanging around, and seeing if East and West can get along and enjoy sports together. I’ve heard that hockey rinks are a good place for that sort of thing, assuming Boston and St. Louis fans aren’t seated in the same section.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.