Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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Four seasons ago, I met a team called Kunlun Red Star in the basement of Balashikha Arena. It was my first-ever assignment in hockey, and my memory of that night is more vivid than of hundreds more that followed. Among the names on my agenda was Brandon Yip, a 2004 Colorado Avalanche draft pick who found himself at the helm of a fledgling hockey club in Shanghai. Years of being pushed around by traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange could never have prepared me for this confrontation with my childhood dream of hockey reporting. I still remember the frayed electricity of nerves and anticipation, but perhaps more astoundingly, the way they melted in the presence of Kunlun’s steady captain. Brandon Yip has anchored one of the toughest gambles in recent hockey history, one whose payout is expected to arrive when Kunlun supplies the Chinese Olympic Hockey Teams for Beijing 2022. He has done so with a careful balance of ferocity and grace—and has assumed hockey’s ambassadorship to China in the process.

A graduate of Boston University, Yip debuted for the Colorado Avalanche on December 19, 2009. He spent time in the Colorado, Nashville, Arizona and Anaheim organizations before opting to move his career to Germany in February of 2015. As the Kunlun Red Star organization began to take shape—a club founded to compete in the KHL and naturalize players for the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games simultaneously—Yip was among the first wave of heritage players to join the organization. He is the most successful sniper in club history, and notched his 100th point, a Kunlun milestone, in Sochi this month. Yip has navigated four location changes, a pandemic that exiled his team from China mid-season, and a turbulent road to the Olympic Games. He was named a KHL All Star in 2020 and has served as captain in three of four seasons.

I caught up with Brandon Yip on a number of topics—from his alleged power of persuasion to the upcoming Olympic Games.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): I wasn't going to start here, but I have to do it. Spencer Foo posted a photo from Sochi with the caption, “When your manipulative captain convinces you to jump off of a bridge, you do it.” I am sort of interested to hear your take on this description… 

Brandon Yip (BY): We always have an inside joke, me and Foozy, about my being manipulative to get my way for certain things. We had a blast. I've done the bungee jump at Skypark before, so I was trying to convince him two days prior that he had to do this, it was going to be a great life experience, etc. At first, he was denying me and telling me how he wouldn't do it. [Laughs] But I guess manipulated him into doing it, and he did it. He thanked me after!

GK: On the topic of persuasion, take me back to the very beginning—the first call you received that there would be a professional hockey team in China. How were you persuaded to take the opportunity?

BY: I was in the German league at the time. The first time I heard there was going to be a team in China, I think I was in Mannheim—but at that point, it was just a rumor. I got a call from Scotty MacPherson and Bobby Carpenter, and they wanted me for the following year.

For me, it was a little bit of a no-brainer for a few reasons. At the top, one of my main goals, was to bring hockey to China and spread the sport that has been so good to me and to so many other people. I wanted to see that expansion. Secondly, it was an opportunity to play in the KHL, which I believe is a step up from the German league. It checked a lot of boxes, and it was another cool opportunity to extend my career. I’ve been fortunate and very happy with that decision.

GK: What was your relationship to your heritage prior to Kunlun, and how has it evolved? 

BY: My grandmother spoke Cantonese, but she passed away when I was a little younger and my three other grandparents passed away right before I was born. So I wasn't, to be honest, that connected to my heritage. My parents don't speak Mandarin or Cantonese. We maintained a couple of traditions and ate the food, but it wasn't a stereotypical Chinese upbringing.

This experience definitely connected me a lot more. It was the first time I had ever stepped foot in China. I come from Western Canada—a town called Maple Ridge. There are not too many other Chinese people there. I finally got to witness the culture. I got to see a lot of history being in Beijing for a year as well. It has been such a cool experience.

GK: When did it really hit you that Kunlun was blazing a trail in hockey history, and you were along for the ride? 

BY: It really hit me the first time we landed in Shanghai. I had never been to China before, and as you know, Shanghai is such a beautiful city. We went on a tour bus and then had some dinner at a high-rise downtown. You could see a perfect view of The Bund. I never thought I'd be on that side of the world. I had never seen so many buildings and so many people all in one city. That’s when it hit me like, “Wow, you're really playing hockey in China.” It's crazy.

GK: You’ve witnessed a number of head coaches at the helm of Kunlun. How does newcomer to the organization, Ivano Zanatta, differ from previous leaders? 

BY: Ivan’s been a great addition. He has brought a lot of knowledge and experience. He has a unique viewpoint on our situation because he was born in Canada but competed for the Italian National Team in 1992. He has coached in several different leagues and is familiar with the KHL and the Russian hockey style. He knows the recipe and we're just trying to follow along.

GK: You’ve not only had a number of head coaches, but they came from varying hockey heritages. Do you find that Zanatta leans more toward the North American style of play? 

BY: He’s kind of a mix. He has implemented a few different forechecks to our game, and he's introduced the 1-3-1 to us that we haven’t really played in the past. It's a more defensive setup through the neutral zone. But then again, he also has an aggressive style in the o-zone. If we can get to the puck, then we want to be aggressive and try and cause turnovers. For us, it boils down to details. Our work ethic is always there, and when we perform as a five-man unit, we’re really effective.

GK: You hit a personal and KRS men’s team milestone recently—the first to 100 points! Does any one of them stand out? 

BY: That’s a good question. I don't look at the stats much, to be honest. I become aware of them through the social media at Kunlun! I'm just going out there and trying to do my best to help the team win in any way possible. But it's funny you mentioned that. Cory Kane came up to me this week and he was like, "Your first goal for the Kunlun Red Star was in Sochi, and now your 100th point was in Sochi." He's been the one grabbing and writing on all of my pucks too.

GK: It is remarkable to me how many familiar names have returned to this roster from when we first worked together in 2018. Kunlun has gone back to the basics, in a sense. How have you enjoyed the reunion with Squires, Bartley, Yuen, etc.? 

BY: It has been so awesome to have everyone back here. We've come a long way from five years ago, and guys have come and gone and returned again. I've just been so proud of the guys regarding where they are as players today. They've developed a lot and they've gotten a lot better. We're playing in the second-best league in the world. For these guys to make the jump like they have the last few years, it has been really cool to see.

GK: There are also some homegrown talents on your roster that KHL fans have not seen before. 

BY: We’ve had camps with them throughout the years, so I've known them for a while as well. It has been great having them around everyday and practicing with them, trying to teach them a little bit. You can already tell these last few months that they've been really stepping up their game in practice. I think everyone's going to be pleasantly surprised come Olympic time.

GK: What does the prospect of representing Team China mean to you? A gold medal is likely not in the cards, but what will constitute success of the program in your eyes? 

BY: On a personal note, it's going to be such an honor to represent China. It's so much bigger than any one person in this program. It's more for somewhere down the line—if I turn the TV on twenty years from now and I see Team China competing in the Olympics not as the host nation, for example. If I see a Chinese national player getting drafted into the NHL, and if they’re asked why they started playing hockey and they’re like, “In 2022, I was five years old and watching Team China play in the Olympics,” then I think we’ve all done our jobs.

GK: What have you tangibly witnessed in terms of hockey’s growth in China? 

BY: We started in Shanghai and had maybe 20 fans. Progressively each month, each season, there were definitely more fans in the seats. When we were in Beijing—you were there as well—we started to get a few thousand fans, and we started to see some youth hockey program show up. We made a couple of trips to high schools, did presentations at malls and things like that to spread Kunlun Red Star and the game in general. It's definitely getting traction. When I see certain fans at the games and then I see them returning to support us, that's a good sign.

GK: You’re leading a locker room that is in flux on the National Team level, and one that has had performance issues since the beginning of the KHL season. How do you keep everybody's head in the game beyond the noise of negative headlines? 

BY: It has been a roller coaster, for sure. I remind the guys that we have got to keep our eyes on the prize. We’ve got to work hard everyday. We can't be too focused on the instant result but the main picture, and that’s the opportunity to play in the Olympics. We've been implementing different game plans and strategies. We've been playing together for so long that we're going to have good chemistry. Hopefully we can bring that into our game.

GK Who are some of the leaders that have inspired you through the years? 

BY: I’ve been lucky enough to have great leadership throughout my career. Obviously, if you go way back to college, my coach Jack Parker really implemented a lot of key attributes that have made me the kind of player I am today. And then moving the step up into the NHL, I had guys like Adam Foote as my captain and Shea Weber who are known for their leadership. I've also had great coaches throughout the years, and I've just followed their lead and implemented their philosophies.

GK: What is one experience you’ve had in this Chinese hockey adventure that will get added to the memoir someday? 

BY: I remember during training camp in Shenzhen, it was 110 degrees outside and the ice was pretty much melted. We had to stop practice every three minutes and skate around in a circle because it got so foggy in the steam, we couldn't see. You literally couldn't see from board to board. We'd do the Indy 500 and skate around in a circle for two minutes for the fog to clear. Then we could practice for another three minutes, and then we'd do it again.

GK: What are some of your off-ice passions or side hustles? Obviously you will say real estate, because Victor Bartley has educated half the league at this point. 

BY: Yeah, right? I've dabbled in real estate for sure over these last few years. I like to read. I wish the weather was permitting because I'd play golf. I just love hanging out with the guys, simple things like going to lunch or dinner after practice.

GK: What is a misconception that you think people have about you?

BY: Wow, I don't know. I guess Foozy said I'm a manipulator. I didn't think I was. What kind of answers have you been getting on that question?

GK: I mean, you got him to jump off of a bridge. Darren Dietz said everyone thinks that he is nicer than he really is, which confused me—because I think he’s nice! 

BY: It’s funny because I think he's super nice too, whenever I've met him! I bet you that people wouldn’t guess how much I read. Maybe they don’t think I have that side to me. Right now, I'm reading a cool book called The Wealthy Gardener. I’ve read some real estate. I like to read on pop culture, the metaverse, NFTs—stuff like that.

Brandon Yip and Darren Dietz. Credits: Yury Kuzmin

GK: What's a tune on your workout playlist right now? 

BY: I'm going to pull it out right now because I have a bunch. I actually DJ the locker room. I like Paradise by Vize.

GK: I remember that you would always play Sunday Morning by Matoma in Shanghai. It’s funny how a song can take you right back to a place or time—and that always stops me in my tracks. I’m right there with Kunlun again. 

BY: I know what you mean. There’s always a song that comes to my head and then it reminds me of Shanghai or Beijing or somewhere in—I don’t know—Nizhnekamsk.

GK: Okay, now I need to know what song brings you back to Nizhnekamsk. 

BY: It’s the song from Big Little Lies—Cold Little Heart. I think DeFazio played that when we were on a ten-game losing streak. [Laughs] I just remember sitting there in Nizhnekamsk and being like, “Oh my god, I want to kill myself.”

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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Kunlun Red Star (Beijing) Kunlun Red Star (Beijing)
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