In a year where the NHL announced its conditional return to the 2022 Winter Olympics, a lot of the talking points have surrounded the host nation, China, instead.
China won't be bringing any NHLers to the tournament. No homegrown Chinese players have ever made the top hockey league. There's been a handful of players of Chinese descent make it, like Brandon Yip, Spencer Foo and Josh Ho-Sang, but none have really played an impactful role. When the NHLPA asked for Olympic teams to list their initial three NHLers to make the Olympic team last week, China was the lone team not to name anyone for obvious reasons.
New IIHF president Luc Tardiff told France’s press agency AFP in late September that “Watching a team being beaten 15-0 is not good for anyone, not for China or for ice hockey," and that the team carries an "insufficient sporting standard". Tardiff said the IIHF will closely monitor the team, with a decision at the end of the month looming whether or not China should be there.
So, the question still remains: will the Chinese men's national hockey team participate come February? It's hard to be a true best-on-best 12-team tournament when the 11th-ranked Norwegians are out and the 32nd-ranked Chinese national team is in. If China doesn't play, Norway will swoop in as the final team due to being the highest-ranked IIHF team on the outside.
Mark Simon, the co-founder of Chinese-based non-profit Hockey Hands and a consultant with the China Hockey Group, doesn't believe the team is in good enough standing. He recalls one game between the national team and a group of heritage players, saying it wasn't even close – and not in the national team's favor.
Part of the issue is that China, as a country, doesn't recognize dual nationalities, although that can be waived by the IIHF if the organization felt necessary like they did with South Korea in 2018. That's not an issue for the rest of the competing countries – you can be a dual citizen, and if you meet the IIHF's other requirements, you're good to go. It's something we see a lot in Division I teams in World Championship play. Albeit, the top teams typically don't need to worry about it because they typically have enough homegrown players to fill their needs.
And that's the problem. Had the NHL decided to not go, we're still talking about some quality talent playing globally taking part. In China, none of the homegrown players are professionals. So going up against players like Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Patrick Kane and Auston Matthews simply isn't good for the game. But would pulling them out of the tournament this late in the running make sense, either? The Olympics are just four months away, with initial rosters set to be released Oct. 15.
Many with knowledge of China's hockey efforts, including Simon, have criticized the Kunlun Red Star program. In theory, it was supposed to be the team's way of giving the national team players better, more consistent competition. Instead, the team uses very few national team players, and despite icing a team of nearly all imports, they have almost always finished near the bottom of the standings. The club currently sits dead last with a 4-10-0 record.
So, a poor lineup, coaching and management instability and the overall unpopular reality of ice hockey in China has not done much to move the needle, with Kunlun's limited fanfare being an issue.
Through various management coaching changes, Kunlun has built a team with heritage and other import players, while the national team has to play teams like Croatia, Serbia and Australia while struggling to stay afloat. That's not exactly the competition you want to use to prepare you for Canada, USA or Germany.
"Obviously, most local Chinese players have no business playing in the KHL, it's not their level," Simon said. "But if you have 15 heritage guys and you sprinkle in five, six or seven local players, you can make it work. Would it be a good KHL team? Probably not. But at least you're a team that's preparing for the Olympics."
It's worth noting that, per Elite Prospects, no KRS players have experience with the men's Chinese national team, although most of the local KRS players are under 25 and China hasn't played an international game in two years. Of the seven skaters with experience playing for China in junior competition, all of them have failed to record a point in the KHL this season.
Some question whether the Chinese Ice Hockey Association would take the top heritage players if they even could. Some nations don't want outside help because it's not always a good look on the international stage. And to a point, bringing in heritage players, regardless of nation, doesn't help long-term development, something that has hurt teams like Italy and Kazakhstan in the past. There's been talk about fallout between KRS and China's national team, as outlined here by Mark Dreyer, and the hesitancy that China wouldn't want to bring players they didn't help develop, and you've got an issue.
China is in a catch-22 situation. It's hard to grow the game without national exposure. Hockey simply isn't popular in a country with a population of over a billion people and playing in small tournaments that are rarely broadcasted in any meaningful way. Seeing the Chinese national team playing against the world's top players, in theory, would be a great opportunity to grow the game's national image. Getting beat by 30+ goals definitely wouldn't do it much good, though.
Simon suggests a good plan would have been for China to back out of the tournament from the get-go, focus on grassroots development with proper programs and try again for a real shot in the future. That's easier said than done, especially with very little progress at the top since China was awarded the Olympics back in 2015.
The clock towards the official decision regarding China's participation is ticking, and the situation isn't going to be easy. Regardless of what happens, there won't be any winners. Either the hosts miss out on participation or they're crushed violently by hockey's top powerhouses.
The saga continues.