Hockey’s governing body Tuesday backtracked on plans to bar China’s men’s team from competing next year at the Beijing Olympics, a swift reversal that came only weeks after the hockey organization’s president had raised concerns that China’s team simply was not good enough to merit a place in the field.
The organization’s president, Luc Tardif, announced that China would remain in the Olympic tournament in a statement released at the end of a three-day meeting of the International Ice Hockey Federation in Zurich.
“To be clear, the IIHF is not going to remove the Chinese team from the Olympic Games,” Tardif said. “The status of the men’s national team as a host nation participant in the Olympic ice hockey tournament was confirmed by congress and remains unchanged,” a reference to an earlier vote to place the Chinese men in the field, a courtesy granted to nearly all Olympic host nations.
It was Tardif, though, who had suggested in September that the poor quality of China’s team might lead ice hockey officials to replace the squad in the Games.
“Watching a team being beaten, 15-0, is not good for anyone, not for China or for ice hockey,” Tardif told Agence France-Presse. He said hockey needed to urgently consider a “Plan B” for the Olympics.
His comments created a potentially embarrassing situation for hockey, Beijing 2022 organizers and, perhaps most important, the Chinese government. China’s president, Xi Jinping, views the Beijing Games as an opportunity for the country to showcase its relative success in taming the coronavirus and to demonstrate its emergence as a global power.
Still, the risk of Chinese humiliation rose this fall when the International Olympic Committee announced that it had reached an agreement with the NHL over the release of players for the Games, ensuring that China’s first-round opponents – the United States, Canada and Germany – would be stocked with some of the game’s best talent.
Concerns about China’s performances are linked to a Chinese team that competes in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. The team, Kunlun Red Star, is usually based in Beijing but relocated to a city close to Moscow during the coronavirus pandemic in order to play in the league’s eastern division. It currently has the worst record in the 24-team league.
Yet even as Tardif said that China would remain in the Olympic tournament, the international federation said it was working with the Chinese Ice Hockey Association to schedule two games featuring players eligible to represent the national team “in a joint effort to evaluate the status of the team’s preparations for Beijing 2022.”
If the games can be arranged, the Chinese players would compete for Kunlun Red Star in two KHL games, on Nov. 15 and 17. After those dates, the statement released Tuesday said, “the IIHF Council will reconvene to discuss the next steps forward.”