UBC players eye Olympics after turning pro in Russian hockey league with Beijing-based Red Star
'I imagined playing pro. But never in a Russian league. And never in the Olympics.'
You can't really call it a dream come true because neither Derek Dun nor Luke Lockhart ever imagined that one day they could be playing hockey in the Olympics for China. In China. By way of Russia.
Like most Canadian kids with a love of the game, their dreams were more local.
"Well, the NHL for sure," said Lockhart, a forward from Burnaby. "And maybe Team Canada."
"I imagined playing pro," said Dun, a goalie from Surrey. "But never in a Russian league. And never in the Olympics for China."
Fair to say the hockey universe has opened up in a weird and wonderful way.
Ability, timing, grandparents
In a confluence of great ability, good timing and the right grandparents, both have signed with the Kunlun Red Star of the Kontinental Hockey League — the Russian NHL — and life is about to get very interesting for the two men who leave today for physical testing in Moscow, followed by training camps in Zurich and Helsinki.
The Red Star are based in Beijing and coached by none other than Mike Keenan who has duel roles in the job: running the pro team while also developing talent for Chinese national teams — men and women — that will play in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
That's why the grandparents matter.
Both Lockhart and Dun have grandparents who are first generation Canadians from China, and that heritage is key is in the greater goal of Chinese hockey officials who want to ignite interest in a game that doesn't have a long history in the country.
Brandon Yip, one of the first players of Chinese heritage to play in the NHL, has also been signed by the Red Star, while fellow Vancouverite Zach Yuen is entering his second year with the team.
In fact, it was Yuen who first contacted both players, convincing them to get in shape in time for a Chinese hockey identification camp in Burnaby last month.
'Kind of confused at first'
"I was at home one day and got a call from China. I was kind of confused at first," said Dun. "When he asked if I was interested, I said yes, of course,"
"I'm good friends with Zach. We started skating together at 8-Rinks when we were four or five," said Lockhart. "I couldn't turn it down."
Both players have signed three-year contracts with a development focus. For the first two years, the deal is two-way, meaning they will likely spend time developing in the Red Star minor league affiliate located in Harbin, a city in northern China.
In the third year, however, the deal converts to a one-way contract with the main team in Beijing. At that point, both players will have spent enough time in the country to be eligible for the Chinese national team.
5 year commitment
"This whole process is aimed at the Olympics, so they just want to see growth," said Dun. "I've accepted it as a five year commitment to 2022"
Lockhart says he's aware of stories that paint a less-than-flattering picture of the KHL but isn't worried about joining Red Star.
"I've heard the horror stories about some of the Russian teams not paying players, but everything I've heard about this organization is that they are great."
In truth, getting any kind of paycheque for playing hockey will be an entirely new experience for both players, although neither would reveal the numbers.
"It will be a big change to finally make grown-up money," said Lockhart.
"It's probably better than any entry level position you can get coming out of university," said Dun. "If you told me I would be playing hockey and making money doing it, I wouldn't have believed you."