Chinese Olympic Hockey Roster Bolstered By “Heritage Players”
With the 2022 Winter Olympics Games set to begin in less than six weeks, the status of the men’s ice hockey tournament has as little clarity as any sport in the Games. It was only December 22, 2021 when the National Hockey League (NHL) announced that it would not be sending its players to Beijing due to the rising cases of COVID-19 in the NHL, an announcement that was particularly disappointing after it was announced approximately three months earlier that the NHLers would be returning to the tournament after being held out of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
While traditional hockey powers scramble to piece together a roster, there is one team that knows—for the most part—who will be taking the ice and wearing their nation’s colors in February: China. As one can imagine, China is far from a hockey superpower (currently ranked 32nd in the world); however, they received its first berth to the Olympic ice hockey tournament because it is hosting the Games. Even though the Chinese team is much farther along in finalizing its roster, this is not to say that China has not had its issues in forming a competitive team since it was elected to host the Games in July 2015. In fact, it was only a few months ago that the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) considered removing China from the tournament due to "insufficient sporting standard.”
The difficulty in fielding a competitive squad is mainly due to the historical lack of ice hockey talent in China. South Korea faced the same issue entering the 2018 tournament but were able to strengthen its roster by naturalizing a handful of foreign players from North America that were playing in Asia League Ice Hockey (ALIH) thanks to an amendment in the country’s “Nationality Act”, which permitted foreigners to naturalize in South Korea if they can contribute to the national interests of the nation, including those who had excellent ability in sport. In addition, anyone that naturalized was able to keep their original country’s passport. The South Korean team was not a powerhouse by any means, going winless and being outscored 19-3 in the 2018 Games, but was ranked 21st in the world heading into the tournament.
China attempted to jumpstart its hockey program by using a similar strategy as the South Koreans with the creation of the Kunlun Red Star, a China-based professional team slated to compete in the highly competitive Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) starting in the 2016-17 season. Being the only high-level professional franchise in China after the dissolution of the ALIH’s China Dragon after the 2016-17 season, Kunlun became the proxy training ground for the future Chinese hockey squad. The idea of potentially playing in the Olympics drew many North American hockey players to Kunlun, many of whom have Chinese heritage, including former NHLers Brandon Yip and Spencer Foo. However, Kunlun has not faired well in the KHL, finishing with a losing record in its previous four seasons and are currently dead last in the KHL this season. In addition, the team has been forced to relocate to the suburbs of Moscow the past two seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The current make-up of the Kunlun roster gives us a good idea of who will be suiting up for the Chinse squad on February 10 against the United States. It has been projected that more than half of the Chinese squad will comprise of players born outside of China. However, the roster has been in flux in the last few weeks, mainly in part to the IIHF’s eligibility standards and China’s naturalization laws.
Pursuant to the IIHF’s rules, to participate in the Olympic ice hockey tournament players must, in short: (a) be under the jurisdiction of an IIHF member national association; (b) be a citizen of the country they represent; and (c) (i) prove that they have participated for at least two consecutive hockey seasons in their new country and have neither transferred to another country nor played within any other country, or (ii) if the player has previously participated in IIHF for another country, such player has participated for at least four consecutive years in the national competitions of their new country.
This standard has been made even more difficult due to the strict naturalization laws in China, which has some of the most difficult immigration standards in the world. While China’s “Nationality Law” generally allows foreigners to become naturalized citizens if they have relatives who are Chinese citizens, have settled in China, or “have other legitimate reasons,” it is widely understood that if one does not have a relative who’s a Chinese citizen and lives in China their chances for naturalization are essentially zero.
Further complicating this issue is the fact that China, unlike South Korea, does not recognize dual nationality, meaning any person that naturalizes to China must relinquish their previous country’s passport. According to Mark Dreyer of China Sports Insider, the idea of giving up a Canadian or U.S. passport and becoming a Chinese citizen has caused some of the prospective Olympic players on Kunlun’s roster to hesitate in joining Team China. During this same report, Dreyer noted that Canadian-born defenseman Victor Bartley (121 NHL games) left the Kunlun team to go back home at the end of November 2021. While it is unclear as to why Bartley left the program after being a staple on the Kunlun blueline for three seasons—the Chinese media and team communications staff has been tightlipped, as one can imagine—it is possible that Bartley left to concerns over his future citizenship. However, it is possible that Bartley would not have been eligible to play for Team China anyways because Bartley represented Canada in the U18 World Junior Championships and only played three seasons for Kunlun, or the fact that Bartley played in Poland during the 2020-21 season before returning to Kunlun for this third season.
China’s goaltending situation also appears to be in flux. Of the five goalies to appear in net for Kunlun this season, only one was born in China (Pengfei Han, who has appeared in one game this season). Earlier this season, the bulk of the goaltending duties was handled by Russian-born Alexander Lazushin; however, his contract was (according to the Kunlun Twitter account) mutually terminated because “his naturalisation case was out of criteria because of breaks in playing for Chinese teams.” While Lazushin played the entire 2018-19 season for Kunlun, he spent the entire 2019-20 season playing for the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and appeared in only one game for Kunlun last season before returning to Kunlun full time this season.
This leaves Canadian-born Paris O’Brien and American-born Jeremy Smith (2nd Round draftee in 2007 NHL Draft), along with Han, as China’s legitimate options between the pipes. O’Brien appears to be a lock for the Olympic roster having played for teams in China the last four seasons and being listed as having Chinese citizenship on the KHL website, while Smith’s situation seems to be more up in the air considering he represented the U.S. in the 2008 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships, is only in his third season with Kunlun, and is currently listed as having American citizenship on the KHL website.
While the IIHF has refused to confirm which Kunlun players are eligible for China’s roster, it does appear that China’s roster is close to being set with Foo, Kunlun’s leading scorer, and Yip, Kunlun’s captain, leading the way. Foo, the former 2017 Hobey Baker finalist at Union College, is in his third consecutive season with Kunlun, while Yip, a 2009 national champion at Boston University, played three consecutive seasons for Kunlun from 2017-18 through 2019-20 before playing in Finland in 2020-21 and returning to China for the 2021-22 campaign. Both Canadian-born players also have Chinese heritage and are listed as Chinese citizens on the KHL website. Others expected to be on China’s roster include Parker Foo, a draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks and Spencer’s younger brother, and American-born Jake Chelios, the son of NHL Hall of Famer Chris Chelios.
Even though the NHL players will not be participating in this year’s Games, most experts still expect the Chinese team to get blown out by the Canadians, Americans and Germans in the preliminary round. However, the Chinese team has been playing together for a while now, which could give them some advantage in the tournament.
*Daniel S. Greene is an attorney based in Syracuse, New York. He has been published by The Sports Lawyers Journal and New York State Bar Association’s Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law Journal, and has guest lectured on various sports law topics at Syracuse University's College of Law and School of Sport Management, as well as at Cazenovia College.