Why American and Canadian hockey players compete for China
Why American and Canadian hockey players compete for China

Why American and Canadian hockey players compete for China

The players agreed to take different names. Names they could not necessarily pronounce at first. Jeremy Smith was chosen by Jieruimi Shimisi and Jake Chelios Jieke Kailiaosi, and maybe it seemed strange.

“A little bit,” said Spencer Foo, who became Fu Jiang. “Yes, I took it pretty quickly.”

Few of them spoke Chinese or had spent time in China, but they knew the difference between a pre-check and a cross-check. It was enough to pull these hockey players together, transport them halfway around the globe and sling them down into a new land.

Which made perfect sense to them.

“There’s a bigger picture,” said Ye Jinguang, who grew up in British Columbia as Brandon Yip. “We’re here to develop the game.”

Coverage of the Beijing Olympics

The Chinese men’s hockey team made its Winter Olympics debut in Beijing last week, part of a grand government experiment to build a national hockey program from scratch, in a hurry.

The list included minor-league talent drawn from all over North America – players with some Chinese ancestry, or who were willing to live in the country for several years. Team officials also asked them to take these transliterated names.

Not everyone was thrilled with this prefabricated list.

The head of the International Ice Hockey Federation suggested China withdraw from the Games because of “inadequate sports standards.” In other words, he was worried that the team would lose on skewed scores and make his sport look bad. The union gave in, but there was serious doubt, especially in the media.

It was no secret to Jieruimi, the goalkeeper, who said, “You read the articles.”

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An undeniable sum filled National Indoor Stadium as China on Thursday night took the ice to play against the United States. Cheerleaders danced to American pop music, while a good crowd – by corona pan standards – waved small Chinese flags.

China goalkeeper Shimisi Jieruimi (Jeremy Smith) looks up at the scoreboard during an 8-0 loss to the United States.

China goalkeeper Shimisi Jieruimi (Jeremy Smith) looks up at the scoreboard during an 8-0 loss to the United States on Thursday.

(Gary Ambrose / For the Times)

The home team skated out in red shorts and red helmets, the country name adorned in gold across clean, white jerseys. Maybe the fans got a little too excited and cheered every time one of their players so much as touched the puck, even far from the goal.

Fortunately for the Chinese team, the NHL had withdrawn from the Olympics in December due to COVID-related postponements in its schedule. Instead of a list filled with all-stars, the United States mostly brought college players.

The Americans were clearly faster and more skilled, but the older Chinese were able to tense some muscles. Fans “unearthed” when 30-year-old Jieke knocked down American striker Noah Cates, who is still a senior in college, in the middle of the ice.

“We played against men,” said sophomore Sean Farrell. “They were a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger.”

Thrown out of balance, the United States scored a goal in the first period, giving the Chinese hope.

“I mean, we were all super excited,” said Yuan Junjie, formerly known as Zach Yuen. “If you watched the match, they surpassed us, but I think we stuck to them pretty well.”

The good feelings did not last long. The Americans took the lead, and three goals in a row quickly pushed the score to 4-0.

In the end, the game was played exactly the kind of embarrassment that federal officials had feared: USA 8, China 0.

Jieruimi tried to remain optimistic after encountering a 55-shot fusillade and said, “Who knows, if I make a few saves, we might get a few goals, suddenly that changes.”

::

China players gather before a match against Germany on Saturday.

China players gather before a match against Germany on Saturday.

(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

Players from the left wing USA and China will meet each other during an initial round on Thursday.

Players from the left wing USA and China will meet each other during an initial round on Thursday.

(Gary Ambrose / For the Times)

Change of nation is hardly new for the Olympics. African distance runners move to the United States or Germany for scholarships and financial aid. Bulgarian weightlifters get citizenship to compete for Qatar.

Unlike some of these cases, the Chinese do not buy after medals with their hockey imports.

“It’s not just about competing in the Olympics,” Ye said. “It’s about making China proud.”

As hosts of the 2022 Winter Games, the Chinese were automatically given a place in any sport. It was not a problem for their improved women’s hockey program, but this nation of 1.4 billion people did not have enough men who knew the game.

Column 1

A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.

China began recruiting players about five years ago and gathered three-fifths of its 25-man roster from the United States and Canada. Some had brief NHL experience – such as Jieke, son of NHL great Chris Chelios – but most were career minor leaguers.

The passports and citizenship status of these visitors are still unclear. Players circumvent such issues with a dexterity used to avoid a hip check along the boards.

Several coaches came and went before the program settled on Ivano Zanatta, a former Italian player. Looking for experience, the Chinese negotiated to play in Russia’s professional Continental Hockey League and lost 39 out of 48 matches. Trouble created a closeness.

“In the locker room, we are family,” Jieruimi said. “We know we’ve worked hard to be here.”

China goalkeeper Jieruimi Shimisi (Jeremy Smith) waves to fans after a match against Germany on Saturday.

China goalkeeper Jieruimi Shimisi (Jeremy Smith) waves to fans after a match against Germany on Saturday.

(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

The International Hockey Federation only allowed them to participate in the Olympics after watching a two-game audition against Russian professionals. Now comes a potentially more cynical audience.

“Chinese fans can be ugly to anyone who loses,” said Susan Brownell, an American who ran tracks for Beijing University as a student and now studies Chinese sports culture at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “This has been a problem for decades.”

The pressure may be even greater because so many of the players are foreign. While some may appear to be of even partial Asian descent, the same cannot be said of Wei Ruike – otherwise known as Ethan Werek – with his pale skin, long hair and tousled beard.

“There’s something bigger at stake in general, and that’s the whole idea of ​​picking up foreigners,” Brownell said. “What they’re doing is an experiment, and if the public does not respond well, they can shut it down.”

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On Saturday night, a lightly regarded German team took control from the opening, throwing three goals ahead, forcing the National Indoor Stadium to a sour silence.

So midway through the second period, something changed. The Chinese players started skating harder, found open space on the ice and came to loose puck. As Ye put it, “maybe a little desperation came into play.”

Suddenly it was the Germans who then shook out, slow, constant retreat. Fu Shuai – otherwise known as Parker Foo and Spencer Foo’s brother – ended the second period by lifting a rebound over the far-reaching German goalkeeper for China’s first ever Olympic goal. Wang Taile – Tyler Wong – scored on a powerplay early in the third to make it 3-2.

China's Wang Taile (Tyler Wong), second right, celebrates a goal against German goalkeeper Mathias Niederberger.

China’s Wang Taile (Tyler Wong), second right, celebrates a goal against German goalkeeper Mathias Niederberger, far right, during an initial match on Saturday.

(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

“We had a chance,” coach Zanatta said later. “The boys thought.”

And the fans, now awake, filled the arena with shouts and cheers and waved their flags. It was the type of reaction the team had hoped for.

“If we see a couple of boys and girls watching us play, they start taking it up and start practicing the sport here,” Ye said, “it’s definitely the mission accomplished.”

Through the chaotic final minutes, through rush after rush on the net, China created chances but could not manage an equalizer. It was almost the same.

When the horn sounded, the players skated around on the ice and waved as if they had won the Stanley Cup. The audience stood and clapped. The puck from Fu’s historic goal was flung away to the sport’s hall of fame in Toronto.

A smiling Jieruimi described emotions rolling over him and his teammates as an incoming tide. He called it the first page of the history book on Chinese hockey, a work in progress. He called it redemption.

“We are not lucky to be here,” he said of the Olympics. “We belong here.”

The goalkeeper got his mask, decorated in red and gold, pulled back on his head. Some time ago, this native of Dearborn, Mich., Had asked a local artist to paint traditional Chinese characters across his chin – they spell his new name.


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