Hockey in China
by Andrew Podnieks|03 FEB 2022
China’s best international result was a 4th-place finish at the Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament in Nagano 1998 where they lost the bronze medal game to Finland.
photo: IIHF Archive
Although China is the world’s most populous nation, it has never been a huge hockey nation. But neither is the sport new to the country either. The Chinese Ice Hockey Association joined the IIHF family on 25 July 1963, and China played its first IIHF event in 1972 with the men’s national team at the World Championship C Pool in Miercurea Ciuc, Romania. The team posted a solid 2-2-2 record but didn’t earn promotion until 1979. Between ’79 and 2000 it moved up and down between C and B Pools, and in 2001, when the IIHF used new designations for the different levels of play, China settled into Division I-B.

Meanwhile, the nation ventured into the World Junior event in 1986, in C Pool, but after a respectable 4th-place finish it didn’t participate again until 2004. That same year, the Chinese senior team won gold in hockey at the inaugural Asia Winter Games, and in 1987, they established a league of their own. Four years later, they won gold again at AWG. The women, meanwhile, won gold in 1996 and again in 1999, the first two years a women’s event was part of the Games. 

Indeed, what was perhaps more surprising and unexpected was China’s early and lengthy success in the Women’s World Championship. It wasn’t part of the inaugural event in Ottawa in 1990, but it did make its debut two years later, in Finland, finishing 5th with a 3-0-2 record. Between then and 2009 it participated in every women’s tournament except the 2006 Olympics. That was a heart-breaking moment. Beijing hosted the qualification for Turin in 2004, and on the final day of competition it came down to itself and Switzerland, winner take all. After two scoreless periods, the Swiss came out on top in a wild third period, winning, 3-2, and going to Turin at China’s expense.

That era of the women’s game was marked by some fine players, starting with tall and powerful Hong Guo in goal. Dubbed the “China Wall,” she played in seven Women’s Worlds and two Olympics, compiling a fantastic 17-5-16 record during her 13 years with the team. This included a tremendous run to the bronze-medal game in Nagano in 1998, where they lost to Finland, 4-1, their most impressive tournament result to date. 

But in 2009, the team finished 9th and was demoted, and hasn’t been back since. The era that also included captain Linuo Wang, as well as Hongmei Liu, Hong Dang, and Wei Wang was over, and a new generation was unable to keep pace. The women’s World Ranking went from a high of 7 in 2010 after the Vancouver Olympics – their last top-level participation – down to 13, 15, and eventually 20.

Overall, however, the early 21st century saw a resurgence of interest in the game across the board. The men started play in the U18 in 2003, and a year later China re-joined the U20 program, and they have been a part of both junior tournaments ever since. The women have continued in Division I of the senior level and joined the U18 program in 2013. 

As well, several Chinese teams were formed in 2004 and joined the Asia League, and more recently Kunlun Red Star joined the KHL in 2016. A year later, a pro women’s team, Shenzen KRS Vanke Rays, played first in the Canadian women’s pro league and later Russia’s after the CWHL folded in 2019. Also junior teams were formed and men’s teams participated in the second-tier VHL in Russia.

At the senior men’s level, China has played mostly in Division II-B in recent years, but in 2017 the team won that division and moved up to II-A, where it has been ever since. It had its highest World Ranking in 2007 when it was 27, and has dipped as low as 38, but it is now holding fairly steady at 32. 

The most notable name in recent years in Chinese hockey is Andong “Misha” Song. He captained the 2015 U18 men’s team in Division II-B, and just a few months later he became the first Chinese-born player to be drafted into the NHL when the New York Islanders used their 172nd overall pick to call his name. Born in Beijing, Song had come to the sport naturally as a small boy, and the family moved to Canada to help him develop. Later, he played in the USHL and then with Cornell University, but he isn’t with the team for this Olympics.

The NHL made its first foray to China in September 2017 during the pre-season. Vancouver and Los Angeles played two exhibition games there, the Kings winning the first one on 21 September in Shanghai by a 5-2 score and again two nights later, in Beijing, 4-3, in a shootout at the Wukesong Sports Centre. A year later, Boston and Calgary travelled to the Far East in September for two games in Shenzhen and Beijing. 

Beijing 2022 marks the first Olympics for the men and fourth for the women. The nation isn’t expected to do particularly well in either group, but the sport has picked up interest since being awarded the Olympics and more facilities have been built across China. In a country of 1.3 billion people with a staggering 887 indoor hockey rinks, it’s only a matter of time and good programming that it will become a more successful contributor to the world’s hockey pool.