Oh, hey Mr. Elephant. Who let you through the door?
Yeah, it’s time we had that discussion. The one about China’s Olympic men’s hockey team.
A lot has been made about the competitiveness – or, really, the lack thereof – of China’s men’s national team. The women’s side has had a drastic fall over the past decade, but the team once was capable of competing for medals.
The men? Yeah, it’s ugly. China’s men’s team is currently the 32nd-ranked team in the final pre-Olympic IIHF rankings. That makes them the lowest-ranked team to ever qualify for the men’s Olympics – even South Korea, who had never played a top division men’s World Championship game before 2018, was a top-20 team after sitting 28th a decade prior.
China didn’t need to play in the qualification round because of their automatic berth, but the preliminary qualification round back in 2015 for the 2018 games was downright brutal. China came last in Group L, winning none of its three games and posting a minus-21 goal differential behind Serbia, Spain and Iceland. So, now they have to play against Canada, USA and Germany with no noticeable growth at the international stage? Ouch.
China hasn’t played an international game since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic which, ultimately, hasn’t helped the team’s chances of improving. Every single one of the teams in the 2022 Winter Olympics played at the World Championship in May and three others – Denmark, Latvia and Slovakia – played a handful of exhibition games before winning their respective Olympic qualifying tournaments.
So, not only is the team not good to begin with, but they don’t have a ton of experience over the past few years in a competitive international setting.
This is going to be really, really bad.
Back in May, China Sports Insider’s Mark Dreyer reported that the IIHF had looked into banning the team from the men’s hockey tournament, mostly to avoid embarrassment. A IIHF source recently told TheHockeyNews.com that the expected plan is that nothing will change regarding China’s participation.
The men’s squad will be comprised of players from the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star. The concept of Kunlun was to give top local players a chance to play at a high level to prepare the team for the challenge ahead. Instead, the team went through five coaches in the first three years and has failed to make the playoffs in four of the team’s five seasons. Kunlun is coming off of its worst season in club history, recording just 13 wins in 60 games to finish second last – only above Dinamo Riga, who had just five wins in an absolute nightmarish season despite featuring much of Latvia’s men’s national team.
The IIHF’s eligibility requirements require that players must be a citizen of the country that they represent. There’s the “two-year case” that requires that a player must have played two straight seasons in the national competitions of the country they choose to play for and be approved to play. If a player has represented another nation internationally, they need to wait four years. So, a player joining Kunlun this year couldn’t automatically make the Olympic team.
The IIHF could waive the eligibility rules to give the team more players to choose from – something Korea did in 2018 – but it’s a sensitive subject in the international hockey world. In some cases, like it was with Korea, it can help complement the core group you’ve been developing domestically (Korea also had the luxury of having no NHLers allowed, which helped). In other cases, it can hinder a team’s true development, like what happened to Italy for many years.
It’s not like the team’s homegrown players have been a hit. Andong Song made headlines when he became the first Chinese-born player drafted to the NHL back in 2015. But since then, Song played three years of junior before joining Cornell University – but he hasn’t played a game in his three years there. Beyond that, there isn’t much to get excited about- especially against the likes of Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane, among others.
There are no winners in any outcome right now. Either China sends its team of natural citizens and gets pummeled, sends a group with a mix of natural and naturalized players that won’t get crushed as heavily, but doesn’t do much to help local growth, or, the unlikely scenario of them getting replaced altogether. The second option is by far the best.
The plus side, though, is that seeing China play against the best in the world – even if it’s one-sided – could see a boost in participation domestically. That’s one of the big power points of any major international competition, and since hockey is still not a popular sport in the country, this could help kickstart growth by having as many eyeballs as possible watching. China has never been a top contender in any ice sports and that won’t change in hockey this year, but that benefit alone could be huge.
There’s still a bit of time for China to figure out its national team program, but it’s not going to be pretty no matter what. The IIHF’s decision in 2018 to allow China to play under the automatic entry clause earned heavy criticism then and it still does now. The Olympics should have the best of the best, and while countries with NHLers like France, Slovenia and Norway have to sit out, Instead China, a team that has never been competitive on the men’s side, will take up a spot.
Get ready, because it’s about to get weird.