Enter the Dragons
by Andy Potts|28 JAN 2022
Chinese men’s national team captain Brandon Yip is all smile during a KHL game of Kunlun Red Star.
photo: Alexei Kudenko / RIA Novosti
When the Chinese men’s national team takes to the Beijing ice on 10 February against the United States, it will be the country’s first appearance at a top-level international men’s tournament. As host nation, the Chinese now have the chance to pit their hockey program against the best – a challenge both exciting and daunting for the Dragons.

It’s hard to overstate the tests that await. Ranked 32nd in the world, China’s bid to qualify for the 2018 Games crashed at the first hurdle after coming flat last in a qualification group featuring Serbia, Spain and Iceland. The most recent game played under the Olympic flag ended in a 3-11 loss to Iceland in Valdomoro. In hockey terms, this is worlds away from facing Canada, Germany or the USA on home ice on the biggest stage in sport.

“For the Chinese boys, playing at the Beijing Olympics is a lifelong dream,” head coach Ivano Zanatta told KHL.ru last week. “We 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 respect. So we are practising to be the best we can from physical and tactical perspectives.”

On Thursday night the Chinese Olympic Committee made known which 25 players will represent their country on home ice at the 2022 Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament.

The Kunlun factor

To meet the challenge, China worked with the KHL. Kunlun Red Star was created in 2016 to establish a pathway for Chinese players to get to a high level in the game. The club has operated teams at three levels in Russia’s championships, building a pathway from the junior league to the KHL itself. With a remit to identify and recruit North American players with Chinese ancestry, while also looking to fast-track the best players from China itself, the Dragons have nurtured the national program and the entire roster – male and female – comes from within the club. Uniquely at these Games, a single team provides its country’s whole squad.

That might be something of a throwback. Up until 1960, Canada’s Olympic hopes were carried by a club team – the exotically-named Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen were the last so honoured. Unlike Canada, though, China also needed to introduce the game to a public that had little exposure to the sport outside of its traditional heartland in the northern Heilongjiang region and the city of Harbin. In its short history, Red Star staged KHL games in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, bringing big-name stars from Russia’s top clubs to play on Chinese ice.

The pandemic disrupted plans to further build a hockey audience. Since the spring of 2020, the Dragons have played out of Russia. Worse, the 2020/21 season saw China’s homegrown players working in isolation behind closed borders in China while the lower levels of international hockey ground to a halt, offering no chance to test the team in the international arena. It’s a tough setback, but the club – and the Olympic dream – survives.

Olympic experience

The Olympic roster is in the charge of Ivano Zanatta. The 61-year-old Italian-Canadian dual national has a wealth of hockey experience – including an Olympic appearance with Italy in 1992 – and has coached in Switzerland, Russia and Czechia as well as a spell as GM of Team Italy. While Zanatta was playing Olympic hockey in ’92, his assistant Alexei Kovalyov was helping the Unified Team – a renamed USSR, following the break-up of the country weeks before – win an emotional gold in Albertville. Clayton Beddoes, who kept Italy in the World Championship elite pool in 2019, is also on the coaching staff.

Goaltending is likely to be crucial to China’s ambitions of gaining respect. Jeremy Smith is the man likely to get the starting role. The 32-year-old Michigan native managed 10 NHL appearances with Colorado but spent the bulk of his career in the minor leagues. Taking a chance on joining Kunlun in 2019 opened the door to the Games after establishing himself as a workhorse on the team. Back-up comes from Paris O’Brien, 21, a Canadian with Chinese heritage who has worked his way through the Red Star system to make his senior debut this season. Pengfei Han, the first Chinese-born netminder to start a KHL game, completes the group. Aged 30, he’s the only one with international experience by virtue of a couple of games in World Championship IIA.

On defence, Zach Yuen has long been a poster boy for Chinese hockey. Born in Vancouver to a Chinese family, he’s been with KRS since the start. In that first season he became the first Chinese player to get a point in the KHL, then the first to score a goal. Now 28, the one-time Toronto Marlie has had injury problems but remains a versatile part of the team, capable of doing a job on offence as well as defence. Two other heritage players, Jason Fram and Zheng Enlai – known as Ty Schultz to followers of Kunlun and, earlier, the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers – have also progressed through the Red Star system to establish themselves in the KHL this season. Like all the Chinese heritage players on the roster, they are motivated by a combination of the Olympic dream and respect for their ancestry.

Three young Chinese-born players emphasise that both Team China and Kunlun Red Star are projects with a future beyond the closing ceremony in Beijing. Ruinan Yan, 21, is the youngest of the trio but also has the most KHL experience with 29 games this season. Zimeng Chen and Pengfei Zhang have 11 appearances between the for the senior team.

Then there’s Jake Chelios. No Chinese heritage here, but ample hockey heritage from the son of Hall-of-Famer Chris. The 30-year-old managed five NHL games for Detroit before signing up for his Chinese adventure. Now in his third season with KRS, he has the time in China to qualify for a passport and will be a key part of the defence in Beijing. Canada’s Ryan Sproul (ex Red Wings and Rangers) and Russia’s Denis Osipov (a veteran of six other KHL clubs) have followed similar paths to get here.

Captain China

The forward line is dominated by Brandon Yip. The team’s captain, Red Star record holder for goals (58), assists (54) and points (112) and owner of 174 of the 358 NHL appearances shared among the club’s players this season, this British Columbia native has embraced the chance to return to his roots with great enthusiasm, becoming an ambassador for the sport in China. After graduating Boston University with NCAA honours, he went on to play for the Avalanche and the Predators before heading to Germany and winning another title in Mannheim. Then came Red Star, and a new role as ‘Captain China’. His leadership, on and off the ice, is vital to this team.

Only Luke Lockhart has more KRS appearances than Yip. Another Chinese heritage player, this hard-working centre has steadily improved through his five seasons on the team. Among the other dual-nationals, American-born Cory Kane is third for games played on the team and brings vast experience to the table while Ethan Werek has been a consistent performer in his three seasons with Red Star. The Foo brothers, Spencer and Parker, have formed a productive partnership in the KHL, while Tyler Wong has a touch of flair that can unpick a defence.

Then come the locals: Rudi Ying, 23, was the first Chinese-born player to score in the KHL back in 2019. Last month, he potted a highlight reel effort on the road at Barys Nur-Sultan and if the Beijing native could repeat the trick at the Games, it would be one of the stories of the tournament. Zesen Zhang and Juncheng Yan are among the more frequent players in the KHL this season and, aged 25 and 21 respectively, could be among the home-grown players that build a longer-term future for club and country. Then there’s another 21-year-old, Jianing Guo, and Arizona University graduate Wei Zhong, also known as Peter. Xudong Xiang, the only survivor from the qualification campaign ahead of 2018, completes the line-up.


Pengfei Han, Kunlun Red Star
Paris O’Brien, Kunlun Red Star
Jeremy Smith, Kunlun Red Star

Jake Chelios, Kunlun Red Star
Zimeng Chen, Kunlun Red Star
Jason Fram, Kunlun Red Star
Denis Osipov, Kunlun Red Star
Ryan Sproul, Kunlun Red Star
Ruinan Yan, Kunlun Red Star
Zach Yuen, Kunlun Red Star
Pengfei Zhang, Kunlun Red Star
Enlai Zheng (Ty Schultz), Kunlun Red Star

Parker Foo, Kunlun Red Star
Spencer Foo, Kunlun Red Star
Jianing Guo, Kunlun Red Star 
Cory Kane, Kunlun Red Star
Lukas Lockhart, Kunlun Red Star
Ethan Werek, Kunlun Red Star
Tyler Wong, Kunlun Red Star
Xudong Xiang, Kunlun Red Star
Juncheng Yan, Kunlun Red Star 
Brandon Yip, Kunlun Red Star
Rudi Ying, Kunlun Red Star
Wei Zhong, Kunlun Red Star 
Zesen Zhang, Kunlun Red Star

Head Coach
Ivano Zanatta