Yip’s Olympic dream
by Andy Potts|28 MAR 2019
Brandon Yip concluded his second season with Chinese KHL club Kunlun Red Star in Shanghai.
photo: Alexei Kudenko / RIA Novosti
Until 2017, Brandon Yip had never visited China. Now, he’s captain of Kunlun Red Star, the KHL’s Beijing-based franchise and is hoping to lead the country’s team at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. It’s been some journey for the 33-year-old British Columbia native, who arrived in China via college hockey at Boston University, almost 200 NHL appearances and a stint in Germany.

Those early years in Maple Ridge, a small town near Vancouver, sound familiar. “My father was a big hockey fan, he even played a bit of pick-up hockey and really enjoyed it,” Yip recalled. “So he put a stick in my hands when I was about three and we played together for hours. He introduced the game to me.”

The difference was that Yip’s parents were of Chinese ancestry, with an Irish grandmother on his mother’s side. That heritage also shaped young Brandon’s upbringing – and when Kunlun came knocking, he was eager to take the chance to explore something new both on and off the ice.

“When I was a kid we had some Chinese traditions, things like celebrating Chinese New Year and a few bits and pieces that my grandparents passed down,” he said “But my parents are third-generation Canadian. They don’t even speak Mandarin. I’ve taken a few classes but it’s a really difficult language to learn. I’m hoping to focus on that a bit more this summer, get a bit more fluent before next season.

“Before all this, I never even had the opportunity to visit China. I was so focussed on my hockey career in North America and then in Europe. But I wanted to take this opportunity when it came my way, and it’s been awesome.”
Yip has completed two seasons playing in China, one of the requirements for any dual-national player looking to represent a country where he did not begin his hockey career. However, the process of getting a Chinese passport is a protracted one, so it’s still unclear when he will be able to play for China for the first time. That hasn’t stopped him and Red Star’s other Chinese Heritage players getting a look at the national team program, though.

“We had an unofficial national team camp in Beijing ahead of last season’s World Championship games,” he said. “It ran for maybe nine or 10 days, bringing together guys from Kunlun Red Star, from [Russia’s second-tier] VHL and some local players from the Chinese leagues. We all got together, went on the ice and tried some stuff but also got to know each other, things like going out for dinner together. That was cool.”
When the time comes for me to be a part of the national team, it’s going to be pretty special.
Brandon Yip
Kunlun Red Star captain
With his day-to-day focus firmly on the KHL, Yip admits he’s not had much chance to take in the bigger picture of Chinese hockey.

“It’s hard for me to talk about the level in Chinese hockey,” he added. “I’ve not had a chance to get to see a local game yet, but we see guys come in to Kunlun from the Chinese hockey set-up and they work hard, they do well.

“Talking about the national team, I’ve heard that they are highly skilled, they’re fast, but maybe they struggle with strategy and team play at times. That’s where bringing in players like me and some of the other Chinese heritage guys from Canada and the U.S. can help. It’s tough to teach skills from scratch, but it’s maybe a bit easier to explain some of the game management and strategic aspects.

“For sure, there’s a long road ahead of us but we are moving in the right direction. There’s a lot to learn. These are young guys and they need to develop, but we’re three years away from the Olympics and a lot can happen in that time.”
There’s also progress at Kunlun, despite the team’s failure to make the playoffs in an injury-wrecked season. When the club was founded three years ago, Chinese faces were a rarity, with only Vancouver-born Zach Yuen seeing regular ice time. This season, it’s been a bit different. Rudi Ying became the first player born in China to score in the KHL, Sun Zehao is now the league’s first Chinese goalie. By the end of the campaign, Red Star had nine Chinese or Chinese heritage players in its roster for a win over Far East rival Admiral Vladivostok. As team captain, Yip is especially excited to see the growth of Chinese hockey on and off the ice.

“That was a big step for us,” he said. “Our last two games, we were able to play in Beijing in the new facility there and it was awesome to see so many Chinese and Chinese heritage players in the line-up. Best of all, we got the win against [Admiral] and took Barys to the shoot-out.

“It means a lot to our fans, they can see people of their own background playing the game at such a high level and hopefully that helps people in believe in what we’re doing.”

The new Shougang Arena was full for those two end-of-season games, despite the fact that Red Star’s playoff chances were long gone and the team had been playing in exile in Shanghai for most of the previous two seasons. The next step for the club is to reach out to the community and start promoting the game.

“We’re seeing people come to our games and start to learn what hockey’s all about. The ones who come regularly start really getting into it and they come back all the time,” Yip explained. “But hockey can be a tough sport to understand if there’s nobody next to you helping you to follow it. That’s somewhere we could maybe do a better job, going to the community and creating a buzz around hockey. Then we’ll see more people going to the games.

“I’ve been with some of our players to events at local hockey rinks. We’ve done Q&A sessions about the game, about being a pro athlete. It was great fun, and I think they enjoyed it too. Now it’s just a question of building on that and recruiting more fans.”

Boosting interest is part of the on-going development in Beijing ahead of 2022, with China determined to produce a showcase event just as it did for the Summer Games in 2008. Although the Winter edition is still three years away, Yip can sense growing excitement around the city as it prepares to host its second Olympics in less than two decades.

“When you go around town you see these little pop-ups about Beijing 2022,” Yip added. “Those last two games, we got to play at a new facility that’s part of the Olympic Village, it’s all brand new and you can see how much is going into this.”

It’s an excitement that he feels as well, knowing that he has a genuine shot at fulfilling a dream born on the ice of Maple Ridge as a schoolboy.

“It was so exciting when we got the news a few years ago about Beijing hosting the Olympics and about how China wanted to do this in the build-up to the Games,” Yip said. “It’s an amazing opportunity, a chance to play in the Olympics. This was always a goal of mine when I was growing up. I always hoped that my hockey would help me get my education paid for, that I could turn pro and play in the NHL. I did that and thought it would be cool to play at an Olympics. Now, hopefully, I’ll have that chance.”