The waiting is over. Kunlun Red Star, the KHL’s newest team, has taken its first steps on the ice.
It was a fairly low-key debut for the Beijing-based franchise; about 150 people turned up to watch a pre-season scrimmage against Traktor in Finland which ended in a 2-0 victory for the Chelyabinsk team. But the game offered the first clues about how China’s first ever taste of big league hockey might go – and included some surprising answers.
A local accent
The first eyebrow-raiser came when the rosters were announced – Kunlun had no fewer than six Chinese players suited up and ready for action. It made an instant riposte to those who have argued that hockey in the Orient is nowhere near the standard required for KHL action. They arrived via different routes: some, like defensemen Guan Tianyi and Chao Wen, are part of China’s national team in Division 2B; others, such as 17-year-old US-born forward Rudi Ying, have some experience of playing the game in North America. Still more have tasted Asia League action with China Dragons, coming up against HC Sakhalin, Russia’s representative in a Far East league that spans China, Japan and Korea.
Ying is perhaps the fulcrum of Chinese hopes and he was upbeat after the game despite going down to a defeat. “Obviously there’s a gap in class between KHL players and Chinese players,” he admitted. “But from what I saw today, it’s not so huge. I’m sure that in time we’ll adapt and play at that level.”
Experience behind the bench
The man tasked with getting the Chinese youngsters to adapt is Vladimir Yurzinov Jr, whose most recent KHL job was at Salavat Yulaev. He’s pulling together a truly multinational squad, with Chinese prospects reinforced by experienced players from Finland and Russia – two countries where Yurzinov has coached extensively – and a smattering of North American know-how as well as French international Damien Fleury.
“Chinese hockey has some decent foundations,” he added. “The players are in good shape, the skate well and they have some skills. The problem is that they lack game experience – the season in China is quite short and they don’t play many games. Without that, no matter how hard they train, they won’t make progress. But given game time, they’ll develop.”
The Chinese style
China’s national team is far from the summit of the international game. Over the past season it lost all eight of its competitive games – three encounters in the opening phase of Olympic qualifying and five more as it was relegated from World Championship Division 2A.
But on the ice the Chinese players showed a good deal of technical ability, attempting to play the kind of slick passing game associated with the Soviet stars who revolutionized the way the world thought about hockey. The ideas were there, the ability was visible; a lack of hockey sense scuppered the team’s progress.
Despite those struggles, national head coach Benyu Wang is hoping that the Red Star effect – coupled with the surge of interest in ice sports ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics – can lift Chinese hockey to new heights.
Speaking during last year’s Olympic qualifying tournament in Valdemoro, Spain, Wang told iihf.com: ““Russian hockey is really great, it’s one of the best hockey nations in the world. Of course we want to be a part of that. It would give us a lot of experience and we can learn a great deal from the skills of the Russian players.
“We are seeing a lot of new players coming into the game. In particular we’re seeing many youth players. People are falling in love with hockey, children want to get involved and their families are helping them to take up the sport.”
The next steps
Kunlun is waiting on further reinforcements from its foreign legion. Tobias Viklund, a Swedish D-man previously with Avtomobilist and Lada, and Sean Collins, a Canadian forward with a handful of NHL appearances for Columbus and Washington, are set to arrive as Yuzinov builds towards the opening game of the season at Amur on September 1.
Pre-season continues with further warm-up games in Finland 28 against Spartak and Amur. Then the team heads East to take part in the President of Kazakhstan’s Cup, the traditional curtain-raiser to Barys Astana’s season. There Kunlun will face the host as well as Metallurg Novokuznetsk and Admiral Vladivostok.