With international roster, China enters men's Olympic hockey fray for 1st time in high spirits

Brandon Yip was growing up in Vancouver when his grandmother figured he also needed a Chinese name to honour the family's heritage. The matriarch decided "Jinguang" was a good fit, and the younger Yip continued on as a Canadian kid chasing his hockey dream.

Roster consists of 11 Canadians, 7 Americans, 1 Russian, and 6 homegrown players

Brandon Yip is one of 11 Canadians who will represent China in Olympic men’s hockey competition at the 2022 Beijing Games. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Brandon Yip was growing up in Vancouver when his grandmother figured he also needed a Chinese name to honour the family's heritage.

The matriarch decided "Jinguang" was a good fit, and the younger Yip continued on as a Canadian kid chasing his hockey dream.

The new moniker, however, stuck.

"I've just carried it with me," said the now-36-year-old winger.

Yip has carried it further than he could have ever dreamed — to the Beijing Olympics as a key member of China's first-ever foray into the men's tournament.

Yip is hardly alone as a transplant joining the national team ahead of the 2022 Winter Games.

The country's 25-man roster is comprised of 11 Canadians, seven Americans, one Russian and six homegrown Chinese players. The group has been together for a long stretch with club team Kunlun Red Star of the Kontinental Hockey League as China looked to beef up its extremely shallow talent pool prior to rolling out a welcome mat to the world.

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A majority of the naturalized players have Chinese backgrounds, but there are others like Jake Chelios — son of Hall of Famer Chris Chelios — who has played the last three seasons with Kunlun and is permitted to suit up at the Olympics after meeting International Ice Hockey Federation residency requirements.

"We're as close as you can get because we have to be," said the 30-year-old Chicago native. "The amount of lockdowns and quarantines we've had to go through and just trouble getting families over because of visas, we're always together.

"It's probably one of the friendliest and closest teams I've ever been on."

"We have the chemistry," added goaltender Jeremy Smith, a 32-year-old originally from Dearborn, Mich., with 10 NHL appearances for the Colorado Avalanche in 2016-17. "If we play our game, I think we should find success."

Jake Chelios, son of former NHL defenceman Chris Chelios, is one of seven Americans competing on China's men’s Olympic hockey squad at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Players' journeys, media unavailability

Yip, who banked a combined 190 regular-season and playoff contests over parts of six NHL seasons, said roster diversity has brought the group together.

"An incredible journey," said Yip, whose team was based out of Moscow the last 23 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. "It's been really great to see a lot of the Chinese national players and a lot of the other heritage players, how much they've grown.

"They're really turning into some great hockey players, and I think we'll put that on display."

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They just weren't allowed to talk about it any further Wednesday.

After the trio of Yip, Chelios and Smith spoke with reporters Tuesday, questions were off limits 24 hours later — a highly unusual decision at an event like the Olympics — following another on-ice session.

Tyler Wong, a 25-year-old forward from Cochrane, Alta., who had a long junior career in the Western Hockey League, started his first answer before being cut off and swiftly guided out of the media mixed zone by a team official.

The same went for winger Spencer Foo, who had two goals in four games with the Calgary Flames in 2017-18 before eventually joining Kunlun — a KHL-worst 9-32-7 this season — and the Chinese national team.

"Sorry guys," the 27-year-old from St. Albert, Alta., said as he was also ushered past reporters who had just watched the grinding, physical 90-minute practice.

Head coach Ivano Zanatta, meanwhile, said he'd be available after walking by media members Tuesday, but the Toronto-born bench boss once again didn't break stride.

It's evident China is concerned about how it will fair and be perceived in men's hockey at the Games.

Toronto-born head coach Ivano Zanatta, right, runs China's men’s Olympic team hockey practice Tuesday at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Chemistry advantage

Despite the fact there are no NHLers present because of league-related COVID-19 issues in North America, the talent gulf remains wide even with opponents having to pivot and pluck players from lower leagues.

But that's not dampening spirits in China's camp.

"We've got a couple advantages," said Chelios, who played five games for the Detroit Red Wings in 2018-19, and watched his dad captain the U.S. at the 1998, 2002 and 2006 Olympics. "We're used to this travel, we're used to the food. The culture here, we've been a part of it, and we've been here for two weeks now, so the time change for us is nothing.

"And then the other thing is we've been playing as a team here for three to five years."

Yip, whose full name is "Ye Jinguang" in Chinese, said the one thing he can promise is the group will leave everything on the ice at Beijing's National Indoor Stadium.

China is set to play an exhibition game against Denmark on Thursday before opening Group A against the United States on Feb. 10. The hosts then face Germany (Feb. 12) and Canada (Feb. 13).

But there was also a possibility they wouldn't even get the opportunity to compete at their own Olympics.

The IIHF contemplated replacing the Chinese with Norway, which just missed out on Beijing, but eventually gave them a thumbs up in December after determining their roster met the standard.

"We knew what we were bringing to the table and the Olympics," said Smith, who indicated he didn't renounce his U.S. citizenship to play at the Games, and was never asked to do so by Chinese.

"The IIHF did the right thing."

Three of Yip's grandparents were born in China before coming to Canada, but have all since passed away, and won't get to see him compete on the biggest stage in the country of their birth.

"They'd be extremely excited," he said. "I know my family back home — my parents — they're thrilled.

"It's just such a great experience."

How the hosts truly stack up, however, is a big question that remains unanswered.

WATCH | Getting to know Canada's men's Olympic hockey team:

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Rob Pizzo breaks down the roster that will wear the maple leaf in Beijing.

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