In this interview, Team China’s head coach Ivano Zanatta talks about the preparation to the Olympic Games, his season with Kunlun, the Chinese players’ prospects, and his goals toward Beijing 2022.

“We’re practicing every day,” Zanatta starts the talk explaining the current situation. “It’s a good time for us to do things from conditioning, the tactical side, it’s basically the training camp we never had in July. So, we have it now. The first few days were just recovery from the season having to play almost every night in three lines. We want to burn out our key players. So let them recover. And now we’re starting to build up. Well, we had the three days of practice. Then we had a day off, then three more days of practice on 17, 18, 19. We’ll fly to China on the 20, and we’ll We get organized on the 22 afternoon, we have a practice and then we’ll start our training process.”

For the players it’s now finally the time to focus on what they practiced for so long in the previous seasons. “Definitely,” the coach confirms. “I think, I they’re also tired from the season physically and mentally, but there’s new energy. It’s normal, but right now I think that the most important thing is just to recover and build up a good physical base. We can be as competitive as possible because we know the competition, there will be the same or higher level than what we face in the KHL. And, like I said, I told the guys we have to gain the respect of the hockey world. We don’t have to put on a show, but we have to gain their respect. So, we are practicing to be the best we can from physical and tactical perspectives.”

Teams are starting to name their rosters, and among the first ones there was Team USA. “We saw the roster. We broke down every player. There are players from the KHL. We know the other players. We know only this much until they have a game and hopefully it will be sometime in the next couple of weeks, we’ll see, but it will be a good team. It’s going to be a good young team for sure. And, for them, it’s an opportunity again, to showcase it’s the mentality of the North Americans, you know, the, the young Canadians and North Americans players that can go to the Olympics, it’s an opportunity for them to showcase themselves and to get to the NHL. So their motivation is very, very high. It’s going to be a very, very big challenge for us.”

However, how Team USA composed its roster also defines how the North American teams are not afraid to throw in younger players. “North American mentality is different,” Zanatta confirms. “I remember like every year you see the high draft picks, young kids, they get thrown right away. In the first line, they ice their captains. It’s a different culture than Europe. Europe tends to always go with older, experienced players. I think the biggest difference we’ll see is that they will give opportunities to these young players, and they will get key moments of the game for the young to show themselves.”

Zanatta’s team, however, tries to get the best of both worlds. “We try and play a game that is more suitable for Europe, because it’s different than a North American game, but then again, you need the players to play that kind of game. Generally, we have a Canadian, North American culture on our team predominantly, we basically have a North American team, but they’ve been here many years, and they adjusted. So, there’s this kind of a mix of a game. But again, our biggest thing is just to keep the game close, not to make any costly errors in decisive moments in the game because they’ll have players that will capitalize and take advantage of these situations.”

At this point, probably Team China is looking to upset someone of the more established national teams. “If we can, we’re going to try. We know what we are, we know what we’re up against,” Zanatta says. “We are the underdog, that’s for sure. Just think of China being in the top 12 in the world was remarkable. But we are there now and, we’ll do the best we can.”

Moreover, Zanatta also worked to bring to Kunlun Red Star more Chinese-born players. In its most recent game. Players like Zhang Zesen, Yan Juncheng, or Yan Ruinian all made their appearances recently. “We basically, all year they trained parallel to the main group. Every day with their own, uh, training schedule off and on the ice. And, then, that was for three months, and then we started gradually to bring them into the main group. And now we have them playing anywhere from five, six to 10 minutes. And that’s huge progress for them for, for to see if I imagine where they were when we start. And we’re there now. They take really, really big stuff, but obviously, to be at this level every day, every year, you have to now establish the mental toughness, the mental determination, the character that has to come out as in the first year is like the excitement, enthusiasm, and all,” the coach explains. “But the reality is that it’s tough. It’s a grind. It’s hard. It’s hard to stay in this league. It’s hard to stay at this level. The competition is sky high. So, the next step will be that they have to develop the character, the personality to stay here.”

Zanatta’s words have been reflected by Kunlun’s season. It has been tough, and the Dragons are currently on a 13-game losing streak. “We suffered all year. We had, there was a moment where we had a good defensive core and a respectful, I would say KHL-level defense. Then we lost some players and then Chelios was injured, Zach Yuen was injured, then we obviously didn’t have the depth and it really hurt us. It’s hard to compete with the big boys or any of these teams in the KHL that have at least two good offensive lines. So we got healthy again. In our last game we got Yuen back, we were on a 2:3 game. You can feel it for us. One good defenseman is huge for our lineup when we are missing three, it’s a killer. So, it’s good that we’re getting back. We’re getting healthy. But we have to be good on defense because, let’s face it, we think that we’re going to be playing a lot of defensive hockey.”

Among the Chinese-born players, Zanatta found one to praise: “Rudi Ying,” he says. “He did a lot of important decisions. He made some important sacrifices and it paid off. He showed that these kids can play with the better players too. And that’s a very, very good sign the thing to see. I think that it surprised a lot of people, but now he’s there. So hopefully we can get a few more guysclose to that. That would be good.”

Naturally, he also found interesting material among the heritage players. “We have a player like Alex Riche. He didn’t play for a lot of time. When he was playing back in Princeton, he was a very good player. His line mates were NHL prospects. I was told about him, but I didn’t know anything about his history. But when I saw him the first time, I understood that he has certain instincts that are at a very high level. He sees the game very, very well, and he has good speed and good skills, and it was just a matter of giving him the time and the confidence to play. At the beginning, it was difficult for him physically. He was behind and then slowly started to come into the game. He was behind in terms of lack of games, but personally I insisted on him because I just saw something there. I saw him, and now he’s here. And he still has margin for improvement. He’s going to be a good player for Kunlun in the future, that’s for sure.”

It wasn’t easy to join such a group of players with different background and different levels of skills. “When you see Chinese hockey players and KHL-level players, there’s a big gap,” Zanatta explains again. “There’s a big contrast. The players for the most part accepted, understood this, but there are moments obviously where frustration sets in and it’s not easy. We managed to keep our minds in reality and not look at something that’s not there. We’re competitive, but we are what we are with limitations and these limitations will always be, and we have to deal with this fact that we cannot change it. And I think that’s what made us a very good group if you consider our record. The atmosphere in the locker room is where it should be.”

Returning to the Olympics topic, Zanatta is confident with his job and appreciates the team’s chances. “We can for sure produce some good entertaining moments. And now maybe for the players it’s the first time in two years to play at home. For the Chinese boys, playing at the Beijing Olympics is a lifelong dream. For any of us just to go to the Olympics is a dream, but especially for them it’s the maximum possible you can hope in your sport career.”

He’s also very determined toward his objective for the Games. “Our main goal is to gain worldwide respect,” he repeats. “Just to show that we belong there, it’s a big opportunity for us and let’s fafce it, we are the number 32 in the world and to go in the top 12, you have to be realistic in your objectives and your goals are if we can try and upset someone, why not, but realistically, we’re there to show that we belong there and we want to get the respect of the hockey world.”

In 2026, the Olympic Games will be in Italy, in Milan and Cortina, a place that Zanatta calls home. “It would be great to be in Cortina and Milan. It would be a dream come true. But now, I don’t look there. I’m looking forward to this year’s Olympics and then preparation and performance, I’m just focusing on this.”

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