In temporary exile and six time zones from home, the next Chinese generation receives their baptism of fire in Russia's top junior league, the MHL.
The March of the Volunteers, China's national anthem, booms out across a sparsely populated ice arena on the western outskirts of Latvia's capital of Riga. Here on a foreign continent, the red-uniformed youngsters of Kunlun Red Star Juniors line up on the ice ahead of a home game in the MHL. Despite being the new kids on the block, China's representatives have settled into life in Russia's highest junior league. A significant sign of progress in their quest for success at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing.
“Our goal is to prepare Chinese players for the Olympics, but also to showcase hockey, which after the Olympic Games will be huge in China,” said the Kunlun Red Star Juniors Team Manager, Renars Freibergs. While the personal business card he hands out it says HC Beijing Kunlun Red Star, Freibergs finds himself on native Latvian soil this season together with his team.
“In July last year, we experienced problems with our intended home rink in Beijing and in the end, the only possibility for us was to play abroad. We did look at both Moscow and St. Petersburg as options, but in the end, we agreed on Riga. From here it is also easier to get the diplomatic passports required to ease our travels,” said Freibergs.
Following Beijing winning the bid to host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, the Kunlun Red Star organization was formed in 2016. With time being in short supply and Olympic honours at stake, know-how from the top hockey nations has since been utilized by China in an attempt to speed up its competitive edge
While Kunlun Red Star fields a couple of female teams in the North American leagues, the men opted instead for closer ties with neighbours Russia. With Kunlun Red Star competing in the KHL and KRS Heilongjiang in the second-tier VHL from rinks across China, the up-and-coming crop of MHL-youngsters is making the most of their life in exile.
“We were already here for pre-season and the facilities in Riga are very good. It is also a quiet city and easy to fly out from for games,” said Kunlun Red Star Juniors head coach Alexander Barkov.
A former national team player for Russia and father of NHL player Aleksander Barkov, Barkov Sr coached in the KHL and was part of Finland's U20 set-up before taking on the gargantuan task of building up hockey from the bottom and up with China. Barkov's introduction to Chinese hockey came during the second half of last season as head coach for their U20 and U18 national teams. Also in charge of the Kunlun Red Star Juniors this season, he already sees visible progress in his young fledglings.
“Step by step we are making progress,” said Barkov. “In four years’ time these players will be 22-23, but we need to remember that they are young and still a lot can happen.”
Currently, nine different nationalities suit up for Kunlun's MHL team. Although only one Chinese player is found among the top-ten in the team for scoring, they are far from being sidelined to cameo appearances. At times, Barkov skates five Chinese players out on the ice in order to quickly get them up to speed.
Among the crop of players, most of their hopes are pinned to centreman Rudi Ying. Born in 1998, he moved to North America at the age of nine and has since his return to China made his debut in the KHL. So far this season Ying has featured for Kunlun in both the VHL and MHL. Another offensive threat having showing signs of promise is 18-year-old Qianyi Huang, currently top scorer of the Chinese players in the MHL. At the back, 19-year-old defenceman Dehan Zhang stands out as the odd one of his teammates having picked up the game on Canada's Pacific coast.
“I grew up playing hockey in Canada, but being Chinese I’ve always had a Chinese passport. My father must have known that an opportunity like this would appear one day,” said Zhang, who believes the step up to MHL hockey can help him fulfil his Olympic dream.
“The Olympics would be my goal,” he said. “I think this has been really good for my development in that sense that we are out on the ice every day and playing in a good league. We spend every day at the rink and it gives you a lot of time to develop your own game,” said Zhang.
With games coming thick and fast it is also a season of contrasts for Zhang and his compatriots. While the team has crisscrossed the Russian continent competing in the MHL this season, the onus is also very much on the Chinese national team and its rise upwards in the world of international hockey.
While the Chinese senior men's national team and their U18 equivalent both clinched promotion last season, the U20 national team had a disappointing loss to Turkey last year in the deciding game for promotion from Division III, and in January finished the same tournament in second place behind Israel.
17 out of the 20 players came from the Kunlun Red Star organization while the remaining three play in Beijing. Despite the setbacks in international play, head coach Barkov firmly believes the players are there for China to start their ascent upwards also on U20 level.
“This is a new project in the MHL that we have started, but what I do know so far is that there are ten Chinese players on my team who are able to play in the MHL,” said Barkov.
The Kunlun Red Star Juniors are in 13th place in the 17-team Western Conference. Missing the playoffs they will end the season with two games against Krylya Sovietov Moscow today and tomorrow in Riga.
Later this month some of the players will compete in the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division II Group B in Zagreb, Croatia.