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China’s Olympic hockey hopes rest on North American talent

BEIJING — When Chris Chelios and the U.S. went on a run to the Olympic final in 2002, son Jake was front and center in Salt Lake City, dreaming of one day following in his father’s footsteps.

Twenty years later, Jake Chelios is in the Olympics — but not the way he ever envisioned. He is one of seven Americans playing for China at the Beijing Games, part of a team made up of mostly foreign players who will be counted on to keep the host country from being blown out in its own buildings.

“I think half the family was a little confused of what was going on at first, but now they’re starting to understand how special it is,” said Chelios, who moved to Beijing in 2019 to play for China-owned Kunlun Red Star in the KHL. “Since we’ve been over here for three years, whatever it is, you do start to feel a closeness to China. We’ve been eating Chinese food, we’ve been living the Chinese culture, so there’s a certain closeness you start to feel with China, and you start to feel like you’re actually going to represent them and you want to win for them.”

Of the 25 players on China’s men’s hockey roster, 18 were born in or grew up in North America — if not both — and one is Russian. Many, including American goaltender Jeremy Smith and Canadian defenseman Ryan Sproul, have no Chinese ancestry or connection to the country before joining Kunlun.

International Ice Hockey Federation rules allow players to represent a country if they’ve spent at least two years living there and playing for the national team. The pandemic forced Kunlun to relocate to the Moscow area and added another twist to the unusual journey of North Americans becoming part of China’s Olympic team, but the IIHF determined the imported players were eligible to compete.

Chelios and Canadian forward Brandon Yip said they relied on a management team to figure out the paperwork and logistics. Smith, who played 10 games in the NHL for the Colorado Avalanche during the 2016-17 season, said he was never asked to renounce his U.S. citizenship. He signed a two-year deal in the KHL in 2019 and jumped at the opportunity to play for China when the idea was presented.

“Of course I said yes,” said Smith, who has his name in Chinese letters painted on his mask. “I think it’s an honor to play in the Olympics. But to dream of playing for the host city in the Olympics, I didn’t ever think there would be a chance for me in my lifetime.”

The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came with plenty of sacrifices for Chelios, Smith and the other North Americans on the team. Visa issues kept many away from family members, and the time together bonded the teammates in recent years.

“We’re always together,” Chelios said. “We’re as close as you can get because we have to be.”

Practices like the intense, physical 90-minute session Wednesday are run in English by Italian-Canadian coach Ivano Zanatta and Canadian assistant Clayton Beddoes. The Chinese federation puts additional restrictions on athletes inside the Olympic village, and they are told they cannot do interviews on a given day without explanation.

Players seem eager to share their stories. Yip is proud to represent China, where three of his four grandparents were born. U.S.-trained Peter Zhong took a season off from playing at Arizona State University to train for the Olympics in his birth city.

“We’ve been playing with Kunlun for a few years now, so it’s all been leading up to this,” Canadian forward Tyler Wong said before being ushered away by a team official. “We’re just trying to stay focused and get ready for the tournament.”

China’s tournament includes games against the U.S., Canada and Germany. Even with the influx of North American talent, there were concerns the host country would get embarrassed on home ice by NHL stars.

The NHL’s decision not to stop its season to send players to Beijing has provided China with a boost of confidence that the team can be more competitive than expected.

“It’s a lot more realistic to do some damage for us,” Chelios said. “We want to challenge the teams and earn some respect for China.”

That attempt begins in China’s tournament opener against the U.S. on Feb. 10. Yip, Sproul, Wong and their fellow teammates face Canada a few days later.

With his family back home cheering for China, Chelios expects it to be weird at first to see U.S. uniforms on the other side of the ice. But he expressed no regrets about taking this leap and participating in the Olympics with China.

“I’d call it more of an experience than a grind,” he said. “Now that I’m here, I don’t want to take it for granted and I’m very appreciative of the chance I’m given.”