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.”

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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.