‘A big task’: China’s Olympic hockey team facing questions

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International hockey officials are hoping to avoid a Humiliation On Ice when the Chinese men’s national team debuts at the Beijing Winter Olympics.

They begged the NHL to send players to the Games in China, but now they are worried that the home team might not even be able to score a goal.

The host nation automatically qualifies for every sport at the Olympics, but the Chinese men’s lineup — with a handful of naturalized Americans and Canadians — will face off against virtual NHL all-star teams from Canada and the United States in the first round. The International Ice Hockey Federation fears historic blowouts could hurt Olympic hockey’s image, especially after persuading the NHL to take a two-week break to allow the world’s top players to compete.

[Full 2022 men’s and women’s Olympic schedules]

To figure out how it might all go down, the IIHF is holding an unusual test next week in Moscow, where players on the Chinese team will play against Russian professionals and attempt to be competitive. It’s not clear what might happen if the team plays as poorly as it has in recent games, which raised fears that it might not score even once on home ice in front of its own fans.

Ice hockey is not a popular sport in China, with no pro or significant amateur league. After China won the right to host the Games, an academy was set up to nurture young talent, and Chinese officials went around the world looking for players with Chinese ancestry — or who were willing to naturalize there — who could join the team.

But China’s men’s team is ranked 32nd in the world, and it is in a group with the U.S. and Canada, two of the medal favorites among the 12 teams going to the Winter Games in February. It has struggled against other competition.

That’s why new IIHF president Luc Tardif scheduled the games in Moscow, where the Beijing-based Kontinental Hockey League team Kunlun Red Star — which has been used as something of a proxy for the Chinese national team to get experience in a professional league — will play against Russian opponents.

IIHF and Chinese hockey officials will be watching closely, in person and online, and hoping the team isn’t on its way to being embarrassed against NHL competition in February.

“The team we will have in front of us, in two games, we will just to see the score and the way the game was playing, we will quickly know if they’ve got the level or not,” Tardif told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “It will be not only the score but the way the game was played.”

[Olympic men’s roster projections: U.S. / Canada]

It’s unclear who will grade this test — or how. The IIHF said last week it will not remove China from the tournament — it does not have the unilateral authority to do that — and it would be up to the Chinese government to pull the plug.

That would be a humiliating step: A host country’s team has never been withdrawn from the modern-day Olympics for solely performance-related reasons, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon.

There is good reason it is even being contemplated: Kunlun has lost 20 of its 26 KHL games this season and been outscored 96-57 in the process. Kunlun has played in the mostly Russian league since 2016.

Tardif said there are no such concerns about China’s women’s team, which is ranked 20th and in an Olympic group with less daunting competition.

The disappointing performance by the Chinese men’s team so far is not for lack of effort. The Chinese Ice Hockey Association failed in its attempt to develop a homegrown roster, so the team’s top players are North American — some with family ties to the country and others who have been naturalized after joining Kunlun and earning international approval to play for China.

Leading scorers Spencer Foo and Brandon Yip and top defenseman Ryan Sproul are Canadian and starting goaltender Jeremy Smith is American, though there is still some uncertainty about who will go to Beijing. The IIHF would not confirm which players on Kunlun’s roster were eligible.

Stocking Olympic rosters with international players is not uncommon, certainly not since the host country started getting an automatic berth in the hockey tournament in 2006. Italy that year had nine Canadians and two Americans, and South Korea in 2018 had six Canadians and one American. Neither team won a game.

Yip, by far the most accomplished player for China with 174 games of NHL experience, hopes playing together for several years and employing a tight defensive scheme can help his team hang with Canada, the U.S. and Germany in a difficult Olympic group.

“Obviously when you look at our teams on paper, it’s a big discrepancy,” said Yip, a 36-year-old from British Columbia who has played for Kunlun since 2017. “We obviously know what we’re up against. They’re the best players in the world, so we’ve got a big task in front of us.”

How big a task?

Longmou Li, a longtime Chinese broadcaster who is VP of communications for Kunlun, figures the U.S. and Canada will shut out China, maybe 8-0 or 10-0, and added the focus is on the third game against Germany. Asked what would be considered success, Li said: “Score one goal and better performance. Not a disaster.”

China has endured painful sporting losses before, namely in soccer when it did not qualify for the 2010 World Cup and sacked its manager after going winless on home soil at the 2008 Olympics. Susan Brownell, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and expert on Chinese sports, believes a poor result this time could cause an inspection of hockey from the head government level.

“If I was a hockey administrator, I’d be shaking in my boots,” said Brownell, who considers the failure of China’s hockey academy program a big reason for the current conundrum. “The criticism really is that you invest all this money and you can’t produce results.”

Much like in other sports, China brought in international coaches to help: Stanley Cup winner Mike Keenan was fired after just 36 games behind the bench with Kunlun in 2017, and the team has gone through Bobby Carpenter, Curt Fraser and Alexei Kovalev before landing on Italian-Canadian Ivano Zanatta for the Olympic job.

Li Li Ji, a Chinese national and professor of kinesiology who brings Chinese athletes and coaches to study at the University of Minnesota, said money is usually not an issue for China in building Olympic teams, but time was not on its side.

Li pointed out that it took Switzerland decades to reach the top level of international hockey, and China only put efforts into high gear after being awarded the 2022 Olympics in the summer of 2015.

The result could be similar to men’s basketball, in which China lost 108–57 in the ’88 Games to a U.S. team made up of college all-stars. Still, it sparked the nation’s appreciation of that sport’s best and the NBA-stacked Dream Team steamrolled the competition four years later while the world watched in admiration.

“It’s going to be six dream teams — hockey teams — that play in Olympics in front of China fans,” Li said.

Still, there could be unwelcome optics if China gets blown out of its sparkling arena by Canada and the U.S. while relations between it and those nations are chilly. And there’s the possible blowback of home fans taking issue with a Chinese team full of foreigners.

Brownell, an American who represented Beijing University in collegiate track and field in the 1980s, said Chinese people will take it as an honor if foreigners perform well. If they don’t, it could become a source of parody.

As one of those players who chose to play for China, Yip is trying to see the big picture. Beyond a few anticipated losses in February, he wants to set the stage for a brighter future.

“If I’m sitting on the couch 20 years from now and I flip on the TV and you see a Chinese national player getting drafted in the first round or the Chinese men’s hockey team in the Olympics again, and they interview one of those players: ‘Why did you get into hockey?’ And they said, ‘I watched the Chinese national team in Beijing in 2022 and that inspired me’ — that would be really what success is determined by this whole experience,” Yip said.

Olympic men’s tournament groups

Group A: Canada, U.S., Germany, China
Group BROC, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Denmark
Group C: Finland, Sweden, Slovakia, Latvia

The 2022 Olympic Games from Beijing, China will air on the networks of NBC.

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    Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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    TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

    The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

    “Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

    The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

    Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

    Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

    The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

    “They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

    Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

    Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

    Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

    “I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

    The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

    There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

    “We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

    The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

    COMINGS AND GOINGS

    The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

    MORE POWER

    The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

    “It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

    BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

    Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

    “Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

    UP FRONT

    With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

    ON THE SLATE

    This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.

    Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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    FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

    General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

    The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    “I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

    Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

    The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

    “It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

    “We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”

    Training camps open around NHL after another short offseason

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    Training camps open around the NHL after another short offseason, a third in a row squeezed by the pandemic. That doesn’t bother Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon one bit.

    For one of hockey’s best players and his teammates, it’s already time to get back on the ice and defend their Stanley Cup title, less than three months since they knocked off the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

    “I still feel like I just was playing,” MacKinnon said. “I took two weeks off, and then I started skating again. It’s just fun. I enjoy it, and I like the short summer. It feels like the season’s just kind of rolling over again.”

    The NHL rolls into fall coming off an entertaining playoffs and final with the chance to finally get back on a normal schedule. That means full camps for teams that got new coaches and the benefits of a regular routine.

    That means a mere 88 days between Game 6 of the final and the first-on ice practice sessions.

    “We’re kind of used to it now,” Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said after he and the Lightning lost in the final for the first time in three consecutive trips. “It’s a little harder, of course, because you don’t have that much time to rest. It’s basically a few weeks and you have to get back at it. But, yeah, I can’t complain. You want your summers to be short every year.”

    It was a little longer for Connor McDavid and the Oilers after losing to Colorado in the West final. Despite the lack of downtime, McDavid “wouldn’t trade that in for anything” and aims to make it even further since Edmonton shored up its goaltending situation by adding Jack Campbell.

    A few spins of the goalie carousel ended with the Avalanche acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and Cup winner Darcy Kuemper landing with Washington. Joining new teammates, many of whom hoisted the Cup in 2018, Kuemper is not worried about less time off.

    “It was definitely a very unique summer,” Kuemper said. “With how short it was, you start getting back into the gym and you’re kind of a little bit worried that your training’s going to be so short. But you kind of felt like you weren’t getting back into shape. You were already there.”

    NEW COACHES

    The Oilers are one of several teams settling in for training camp under a new coach. Jay Woodcroft took over as interim coach in February but has the full-time job now.

    “Looking forward to a camp with him,” McDavid said. “He did a great job coming in during the middle of the season, but it’s never easy on a coach, for sure. I’m sure there’s things that he wanted to touch on that you wasn’t able to kind of in the middle of the year, so he’ll be able to to touch on all of it this year.”

    The same goes for Bruce Boudreau in Vancouver, 11 months since being put in charge of the Canucks. Philadelphia’s John Tortorella, Boston’s Jim Montgomery, Vegas’ Bruce Cassidy, Dallas’ Peter DeBoer, Florida’s Paul Maurice, Chicago’s Luke Richardson, Detroit’s Derek Lalonde and the New York Islanders’ Lane Lambert are all starting the job fresh.

    CAMP TRYOUTS

    Roughly 40 players are attending a camp on a professional tryout agreement with the chance to earn a contract for the season. James Neal has that opportunity with the Blue Jackets, and Derek Stepan returned to Carolina to seek a job with the Hurricanes.

    The most intriguing situation involves 37-year-old center Eric Staal, who agreed to the tryout with Florida the same time brother Marc signed a one-year contract. Younger brother Jordan was with Eric and Marc on the 18th green at Pebble Beach to witness the occasion.

    “They’re both just super pumped, as was I,” said Jordan Staal, who is the captain of the Hurricanes. “Eric is excited about the opportunity and Marc, as well. Really cool. Really cool thing.”

    EARLY START

    Before the puck drops on the NHL season in North America on Oct. 11, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks play twice in Prague on Oct. 7 and 8. And those are not exhibitions.

    “We still play two important games,” said Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, who is a native of Prague. “It’s not just preseason where you coming here to warm up.”

    Colorado and Columbus will also play two games in Tampere, Finland, on Nov. 4-5 as part of the NHL’s Global Series.

    And just as the league gets used to a regular schedule, work is ongoing between the league and NHL Players’ Association to stage a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, which is popular among players even if it knocks the calendar off kilter again.

    “I think they missed out on a huge, huge portion of the international game that’s really going to be missed,” McDavid said. “We need to figure out a way to get an international tournament in as quickly as possible.”