China’s Men’s Ice Hockey Team May Not Be Good Enough for the Olympics

By Ashok Ramprasad | November 16, 2021
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Chinese fans cheer for their team during the USA vs China preliminary women’s Ice Hockey match at the XXI Winter Olympic games in Vancouver's UBC Thunderbird Arena on Feb. 14, 2010. AFP PHOTO / LUIS ACOSTA (Image: LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images)

The International Ice Hockey Federation announced earlier this month that the Chinese men’s ice hockey team would not be axed from the 2022 Winter Olympics. However, officials are concerned about how ready China’s team would be for the games. This is the first time there are worries about the home team not being able to score, with the chances of the Chinese side pulling off a victory even grimmer.

Among the 12 hockey teams that are participating in the Winter Games in February, China is ranked 32nd and is in a group that includes potential medal winners, the United States and Canada. So far, China’s national team has struggled against their competitors, stoking fears that they would be embarrassed in front of their own fans at home.

Ice hockey is not a sport that is much sought-after in China. It was only after China won the right to host the games in 2015 that an academy to foster young talents was established. Chinese officials also sought after ice hockey players of Chinese lineage in foreign nations (or who were prepared to naturalize) to become a part of the team.

IIHF president Luc Tardif plans to have players of the Chinese team compete in two games against Russian opponents in Moscow next week. The players will represent the Kunlun Red Star, a team playing in the Kontinental Hockey League.  

The games will be closely watched by both the Chinese hockey officials and IIHF, who are hoping that the team will not be humiliated at the Winter Olympics when facing competition from world-class players.

“The team we will have in front of us, in two games, we will just to see the score and the way the game was playing, we will quickly know if they’ve got the level or not… It will be not only the score but the way the game was played,” Tardif told The Associated Press.

With the IIHF having no unilateral power to remove China from the games, the decision on whether or not to disengage the team from the Olympics lies with the Chinese government. 

If the withdrawal of the Chinese team takes place, it would be an embarrassing event for the country. According to Olympic historian Bill Mallon, a host country’s team has never pulled out from modern-day Olympics on the grounds of performance.

The Chinese Ice Hockey Federation has been criticized for failing to develop a homemade roster. The team’s top players are North American – some with affiliations to the country and others who have been naturalized after playing for Kunlun and obtaining international consent to play for China.

Susan Brownell, an expert on Chinese sports and a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is of the opinion that an unsatisfactory performance could result in the assessment of hockey from the top level of the government.  

“If I was a hockey administrator, I’d be shaking in my boots… The criticism really is that you invest all this money and you can’t produce results,” Brownell said.  

In the event that China gets thrashed by the U.S. and Canada, nations with whom Beijing’s relations are already sour, it could lead to unwanted consequences. Moreover, a Chinese team filled with foreigners could face possible backlash from supporters.