Team China is one of Asia’s leading hockey teams, twice winning the Asian Winter Games (1986, 1990) and claiming three further bronze medals (1996, 1999, 2003). This is the first Olympic appearance for China’s men. Previous attempts to qualify were unimpressive — in the qualification process for 2018, China faced Serbia, Iceland and Spain and came last in the group, suffering a 3-11 loss against Iceland. The country has been an IIHF member since 1963, in 2021 China was ranked 32nd in the world.
China has never competed in the top division of the World Championship. The country’s best performance came in 2001, when it took fifth place in Division IB.
Ivano Zanatta took charge of Kunlun Red Star and Team China in July 2021. He spent almost his entire playing career with Italian clubs and represented the Azzurri at the Albertville Olympics and the World Championships in 1992 and 1993.
As a coach, Zanatta has worked in many roles. He began with four years in the Italian league before moving to Switzerland in the early 2000s. In that time, he spent eight seasons with Lugano and also took charge of Team Croatia in 2002/03. He has KHL experience within the system at SKA, and also at Lev Prague and HC Sochi, and has worked as GM for Team Italy and played an administrative role at Ambri-Piotta.
In an interview with KHL.ru, Zanatta said that China’s target was gain global respect. “We want China to be recognised as a fully-fledged member of the hockey community,” he said. “From the point of view of results, we’ll try to surprise our opponents. We’re underdogs, we know that we’re not one of the 12 strongest teams, but we’ll do everything we can.”
Brandon Yip (who, like all the heritage players on the team, will compete in Beijing under his Chinese name, Ye Yinguang) is set to be the key offensive weapon for the Chinese. This hugely experienced Canadian-born forward owns several scoring records with Kunlun Red Star and is third in team scoring this term with 27 (13+14) in the KHL. He’s a smart player on the slot, he’s not afraid of a physical battle and his six power play goals this season are the best on his team.
In the past couple of seasons, Spencer Foo (Fu Jiang) has emerged as a star for Kunlun. He’s the leading scorer again this season with 33 (14+19) points and has a productive partnership with his younger brother Parker (Fu Shuai). Foo’s strengths include a good technique, the ability to win one-on-one battles and an effective shot.
Tyler Wong (Wang Taile) is second in team scoring this season with 28 (14+14). He’s a big part of the power play and proves a handful on the slot: according to smart puck stats, he’s the most effective player in front of the opposition net (his ‘Traffic’ score is 931 this season).
All 25 players on the Chinese roster come from Kunlun Red Star. The fact that they have played on the same team since September may go a little way to closing the gap between Zanatta’s team and its more illustrious opponents. The #1 goalie is likely to be the experienced Jeremy Smith (Jieruimi Shimisi), with Paris O’Brien (Ouban Yongli) and Han Pengfei alongside him. Han is the first Chinese-born goalie to start a KHL game.
Jake Chelios (Jieke Kaliaosi) and Ryan Sproul (Ruian Sipulaoer) are the defensive stand-outs. The former is the son of Hall-of-Famer Chris Chelios. Other key players on the blue line include Jason Fram (Liu Jie) and Denis Osipov (Dannisi Aoxibofu).
On offense, in addition to the Foo brothers and the other players mentioned above, another line of heritage players from North America might comprise Cory Kane (Jian An), Luke Lockhart (Luo Jia) and Ethan Werek (Wei Ruike).
Getting into the same group as Canada, the USA and Germany is a mixed blessing for any team. It’s hard to imagine that China will seriously compete even for third place in the group. Bluntly speaking, China looks to be the weakest team at the Games but, in a nation where hockey is still in a development phase, taking on the World’s best on home ice means a great deal.