Chinese connections
by Andy Potts|12 FEB 2022
Magnus Hellberg played his first game at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in the Swedish net against Slovakia.
photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Most of the players at the 2022 Winter Olympics are playing hockey in China for the first time. But a handful are back here after previously playing club hockey with Kunlun Red Star. Six ex-Dragons have been called up onto four different rosters – and many of them are enjoying a return to their old home.

Hellberg happy to be back

Swedish goalie Magnus Hellberg played for Kunlun Red Star in 2017/18. He joined the Dragons after leaving the New York Rangers organisation and the move shifted his career up a gear. The Uppsala native took on a huge workload, playing 51 games in the KHL, and his performances earned him a call-up to the PyeongChang Olympics and then a place on the golden World Championship roster in Copenhagen. Subsequently, Hellberg was traded to SKA St. Petersburg, where he won a Gagarin Cup.

“It feels great to be back,” Hellberg said after Sweden’s opening game. “I made a lot of friends here in China. I had a great time with Kunlun, there are a lot of good memories.”

Among those memories was a taste for dim sum – “I had a lot of those dumplings, they were my favourite food in China”.

In 2022, though, things are a little different. The 30-year-old, currently playing his hockey in another Olympic host city with HK Sochi, is getting a first look at Beijing after being based in Shanghai with KRS. Despite the COVID-related restrictions, he’s settling in well at the Olympic village.

“It’s been good so far,” Hellberg added. “There are a lot of routines with the testing and having the mask on, but now we’re used to it. We live really well, I can’t complain at all.”

Although it's a while since Hellberg played for Kunlun, several of his former team-mates are here in Beijing representing Team China as the country makes its Olympic hockey debut. "I have a lot of friends who play for the Chinese team," the goalie added. "I want my friends to play good - but not as good as us [laughs]. I see them in the Olympic Village every day. I hope they have success as well."

From Dragons' lair to Gagarin Cup, part II

Hellberg isn’t the only Gagarin Cup-winning netminder with Kunlun connections. Czechia’s Simon Hrubec joined the KHL’s Chinese franchise in 2019 after playing with his national team at the World Championship in Bratislava. Unlike the Swede, Hellberg got to play in Beijing when the team returned to its spiritual home in that season, playing at the Shougang Arena. That’s in the shadow of the former steelworks made famous by coverage of the Big Air slope.

Hrubec played a season and a half with the Dragons, sharing the goaltending duties with Jeremy Smith, expected to be Team China’s starter under his new name of Jieruimi Shimisi. He moved to Avangard Omsk in the 2020/21 campaign and, like Hellberg, went on to win a Gagarin Cup with his new club.

Although Hrubec knows Beijing well from his spell with Kunlun, things are very different in 2022. The 30-year-old goalie was kept under close scrutiny after another passenger on his flight to China tested positive for coronavirus. Now cleared to join his team, he’s unable to give his colleagues a guided tour of his old haunts due to the strict bubble that encloses everyone involved with the Games.

Two of Hrubec’s Czech team-mates also spent time with Kunlun. Tomas Kundratek, a 2018 Olympian, played part of the 2018/19 campaign in China before returning to his hometown club, Ocelari Trinec. Fellow blue liner Vojtech Mozik, another returnee from PyeongChang, was with the club last season but had no opportunity to sample China’s hockey culture due to the Dragons’ enforced relocation to Russia.

And there are three more ex-Dragons set to feature in Beijing. Canadian center Adam Cracknell was a team-mate of Kundratek’s in 2018/19. He wore the ‘A’ and compiled 24 (10+14) points in 52 games in his sole KHL season. Slovakia’s Marek Daloga had a short spell at Kunlun in the 2017/18 season. Finally, Latvia’s Arturs Kulda played under Mike Keenan at Red Star in 2017/18. Now with Krefeld Penguins, he's back for a second Olympic tournament.

- with files from Li Longmou, Martin Merk