VIERUMAKI, Finland – For Red Star Kunlun the great adventure of the new Chinese club team in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League has started this month first off and now on the ice as more and more players join the team’s pre-season camp at the Sport Institute of Finland in Vierumaki where the IIHF recently held its Women’s High-Performance Camp.
Only a few weeks are left to form the team as the KHL’s season begins on 22nd August. The new club from Beijing got some extra days of preparation and will start on 1st September at Amur Khabarovsk before having its second game on home ice against another Far East rival, Admiral Vladivostok, on 5th September.
Kunlun will play at the LeSports Center, a venue built for the 2008 Summer Olympics that will be used for ice hockey at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. In the ice hockey configuration up to 14,000 people will be watch the games during KHL play in the Chinese capital.
Until then it’s still a long way for the team that will be coached by Vladimir Yurzinov Jr. The son and namesake of the legendary coach and IIHF Hall of Fame member has coached at the top level first in Finland and later in Russia since the ‘90s. For the 51-year-old forming the KHL team from China in a few weeks of time may be the most exciting but also one of the most difficult tasks.
When Tuukka Mantyla tweeted a photo on 8 July after the first practice, he was on the photo with the first and only line. This has changed a bit for the second week as mostly Finnish and Russian players hit the ice for the practices followed by some other Europeans such as French national team forward Damien Fleury and Slovaks Martin Bakos and Tomas Marcinko.
Among the best-known players is Finnish defenceman Janne Jalasvaara, who won back-to-back KHL championships with Dynamo Moscow in 2012 and moved from Russia’s capital to HK Sochi for last season. He knows how to win and it’s these qualities the newly formed team will need.
“We haven’t discussed about the goals yet but of course you want to win games. I hate losing,” he said.
“When we won the Gagarin Cup two times in a row and after the second one I got the call to represent Finland at the World Championship on home ice, that was my biggest success. But of course I didn’t win them by myself. We had a good team.”
Playing and practising with Red Star Kunlun is something new for him with the difference to last year being that it’s something new for everybody involved.
“It’s for sure an interesting time. They asked me whether I wanted to come and of course I was interested. I’m really excited because everything is new and I’ve never been in China before,” said the 32-year-old native of Oulu in northern Finland.
The deal was done in Russia through his agent. At the beginning he saw mostly Russians and Finns working with the team but the Chinese flavour will come soon for Jalasvaara, who is married to his wife he met during his years in Moscow and has two children. His experience with China is limited to Chinese food for now. “But it’s good food though,” he said. That’s a good start into the new adventure.
Many details still have to be worked on. Will the Jalasvaara family move to Beijing? Or will the team also have a base in western Russia for the road trips like the two teams from the Russian Far East?
“I don’t know much yet about where we will be and when. I take it as it comes now. We will see how everything goes,” he said.
“Everything has been great with the team, so far so good. We had good practices and the coach even speaks Finnish, which helps us.”
Like his father, Yurzinov was coaching in Finland too. For seven years he was a head coach in the top league for Ilves Tampere and Assat Pori. His last team in the KHL was Salavat Yulayev Ufa. However, that Jalasvaara would have five Finnish teammates wasn’t clear before.
“I didn’t know there will be so many Finnish players when I agreed to come. The first great impression was when the coach called me,” said Jalasvaara, who also speaks some Russian. “I understand more than I speak, everybody is laughing when I talk.”
The first Chinese-looking player to come across Jalasvaara was Vancouver-born Zach Yuen.
Yuen once was on the Canada Pacific team at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge but never represented Canada in an IIHF event. After ending his junior career at the WHL’s Tri-City Americans he spent most of the last three seasons in the ECHL, the third level of professional hockey in North America. The Idaho Steelheads were his last team.
“It’s the first time China has a KHL team. Some people contacted me and asked me if I was interested and of course I was. The chance to play in the KHL is pretty special and I try to work hard and make the team,” said the 23-year-old defenceman who recently got a two-year contract.
“This is obviously one of the best leagues in the world and everything is first class here. It’s definitely a different experience but a good one. I didn’t hear about the team until not that long ago. Where the team is placed, that’s a new thing for hockey and it’s a big market. We hope the fans will support us and we’ll win some games. We have a good group of guys and they are still adding people. The staff has done a good job and each day we keep adding pieces to the puzzle.”
Yuen was born in Vancouver where roughly 30 per cent of the population is of Chinese descent. His father was born in Hong Kong and his mother’s family comes from mainland China. Zach Yuen doesn’t have a Chinese passport yet but this and becoming eligible to represent the Chinese national team is something he wants to work on. The 2022 Olympics in Beijing is something he said are definitely in his mind.
“We spoke Chinese at home. I’ve been in China a couple of times and visited Beijing too. It’s a nice city, one of the world’s biggest cities. It’s kind of going home for me. The Chinese are slowly learning the game of hockey. They were also players of Chinese roots drafted again this year.”
China joined the International Ice Hockey Federation in 1963 although ice hockey was played at a national level before. The men’s team has been competing in the lower divisions since 1972 and is ranked 37th while the women’s national team made it to the Olympics three times and played in the top level from 1992 to 2010.
Having a team play in the Kontinental Hockey League will be ice hockey at a totally new level in the vast country and people are curious how sports fans in Beijing will react to the new team. Hockey is not entirely new and state broadcaster CCTV has covered the World Championships, Olympics and foreign leagues in recent years. And there will be more players from the country on the team.
The original plan was to have two lines with import players and two lines with Chinese players. To do so, over a dozen of Chinese players were flown in for a try-out. Most of them played for the ice hockey team of Harbin in the colder north-east of the country and for the national team last season. One of the exceptions is 17-year-old forward Rudi Ying, who played his hockey both in the United States and in China.
How will the team be welcomed when it hits the ice in Beijing in September?
“This is pretty much the first time there’s this high level of a sports team in China. Hockey is not as popular as say basketball or soccer in China now but it’s popular in the north of China. Harbin and Qiqihar and these areas are really big in hockey, I know a couple of people from there although I’ve never been that far north. There is going to be a good fan base for sure,” Yuen said.
And he can be sure to have some fans for him in the stands not last from his own family.
“My parents were super happy and they’ll definitely come over and visit. It’s a pretty crazy new team and everyone behind it is super excited about it. Many of the guys have never been to China before so it will be a good experience,” he said.