On Feb 10, the Chinese men’s ice hockey team lost 8-0 to the U.S. in their Olympic debut. Then on Feb 12, in the second round of the group stage, the Chinese team lost 3-2 to Germany again. This year’s Winter Olympics, the Chinese men’s ice hockey team, has attracted much attention because of the nationality of the players.
Two-thirds of the Chinese men’s ice hockey team came from overseas.
Like many other winter sports, hockey has never had much foothold in China. The New York Times reported on Feb 12 that although China has been a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation since 1963, it has never had a men’s team compete in the Olympics to date. Federation records show that China has fewer than 14,000 registered players, most of whom are junior players.
At the Beijing Winter Olympics, two-thirds of the 25-member Chinese men’s ice hockey team came from overseas, including 17 born or spent their childhood in North America and one from Russia.
It’s worth noting that the Chinese government has nationality laws that do not allow dual citizenship. Article 41 of the International Olympic Committee’s (I.O.C.) Olympic Charter states that “Any competitor in the Olympic Games must be a national of the country of the N.O.C. [national Olympic committee] which is entering such competitor.” Still, according to the Wall Street Journal reported on Feb 12 that the I.O.C. repeatedly refused to comment on whether its Executive Board made an exception for Team China. In addition, the Chinese government and the Winter Sports Center of the General Administration of Sport of China also ignored several questions about the nationality of players on the Chinese hockey team.
Players were signed with a new Chinese club to gather these foreigners together into a team and secure qualification for the Olympics.
In 2016, H.C. Kunlun Red Star joined the Kontinental Hockey League (K.H.L.), a predominantly Russian league, along with clubs from Belarus, Finland, and Latvia, among other clubs. However, there is no professional league in China itself.
The New York Times also reported that although Kunlun Red Star has obtained many resources, it is very bad in the standings. This season, Kunlun has posted a 9-39 record, the worst record in the K.H.L.
The Wall Street Journal added that how the host country manages to field a national team made up mostly of foreigners is one of the secrets of the Beijing Olympics, as the International Olympic Committee requires participants to be citizens of the countries they represent. None of the organizations are directly accountable for Team China’s hockey team. The Chinese Olympic Committee, the International Ice Hockey Federation, or the I.O.C. will not respond to questions about the team’s large foreign contingent.
The most famous name on the Chinese team’s foreign roster belongs to Jake Chelios, the 28-year-old, also known as Jieke Kailiaosi, who is a professional ice hockey defenseman; born in the United States, he represented China at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Jake Chelios said that he and several of his Chinese teammates still hold U.S. passports. When asked if he had been naturalized as a Chinese citizen, he said, “I don’t think we’re supposed to comment on that.”
Jeremy Smith, also known as Jieruimi Shimisi, is a professional ice hockey goaltender born in the United States; Smith wasn’t just being offered the chance to play professionally in the Kontinental Hockey League (K.H.L.); he was being allowed to be the goaltender for the host nation in the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
Again, this struck Smith oddly. He was a native of Dearborn, Michigan, not mainland China.
However, according to ESPN News, Smith responded, “I told them I couldn’t renounce my U.S. citizenship,” adding that “They were like, ‘Do not worry. We will not ask you. This is not what this whole process is about. It’s about getting you qualified for the Olympics.”
According to the International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF) Handbook, an athlete who changed his citizenship must “prove that he has participated for at least two consecutive hockey seasons and 16 consecutive months (480 days) in the national competitions of his new country after his 10th birthday” before competing for the new country.
When the Wall Street Journal asked how IIHF applied its rule, its spokesperson answered in an email that “when an athlete is registered in an Olympic event, the final passport control is conducted by the I.O.C., not the IF [International Federation].”
Previously, China brought in players like Smith and former N.H.L. players Brandon Yip, Jake Chelios, and Spencer Foo and hired hockey legends like Wayne Gretzky, Phil Esposito, and Mike Keenan to help boost their program’s gravitas.
Regarding the nationality of Chinese men’s ice hockey players, D.W. News reported that Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based Chinese sports expert, characterizes it as China’s effort in saving face.
“It quickly became obvious that Chinese homegrown players were not going to be competitive at the Olympics,” he said. “It was looking very, very bad indeed, and so everyone was going to end up with egg on their face. China was going to get massacred on the ice.”
However, how Smith and the rest of the team have been able to represent China remains unknown.
“I think the primary option was ‘give up your passport — here’s a Chinese passport,’ and the players were like, ‘No,'” Dreyer said. “They have a lot of leverage as a group because China knows that they are desperately uncompetitive and need these heritage players.
“Eventually, I think China had to buckle and say: ‘Alright, well what’s the workaround here?'” Dreyer stated. “It’s definitely a loophole. They just don’t want it to get out because then it’s seen as these people getting special privilege.”