Spencer Foo said he signed with Kunlun of the Kontinental Hockey League last June because the former Calgary Flames forward wanted to play in a major pro league to better prepare him to compete for an NHL roster spot again.
He said there was also another reason: earning a shot at playing in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
"It's the Olympics, it's pretty special for anybody," said Foo, who scored two goals in four games with Calgary in 2017-18 and finished with 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) in 58 games with Kunlun this season. "It's pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime chance. It's something that we all watch, something that excites us and, yeah, I think it would be something cool to get to do."
Foo is one of more than a dozen U.S. and Canadian players of Chinese heritage who are on China-based teams in the KHL and the Supreme Hockey League (also known as the VHL) in hopes of getting a chance to play for the host country at the 2022 Winter Games.
Some players have NHL experience like Foo, forward Brandon Yip, who scored 56 points (29 goals, 27 assists) in 174 games with the Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes from 2009-10 to 2013-14, and defenseman Victor Bartley, who scored 23 points (one goal, 22 assists) in 121 games with Nashville and the Montreal Canadiens.
Others, like defensemen Mikael Tam and Zach Yuen and forwards Tyler Wong and Brandon Magee, have played in North American minor leagues, the Canadian Hockey League, or in college hockey in Canada or the United States.
"Everyone who has come over in the group -- we're about 15 guys who come from North America that have Chinese ancestry -- are trying to play in the Olympics," said Tam, who played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the American Hockey League and the ECHL before he signed with Kunlun's VHL affiliate in 2017-18. "As the season goes on, yes, we're thinking about Kunlun and our team. But obviously everyone, in the back of our minds, we're all thinking a little bit about the Olympics in 2022 because [they're] coming soon."
Yip, who is Kunlun's captain, said prospective players are more excited about playing in the Olympics after China was placed in the same group with the United States, Canada and Germany (the host team automatically qualifies for the tournament).
"Some guys will look at it, like, 'Oh my God, they're putting us with Canada and the U.S. and Germany,' which had a great Olympics last showing," said Yip, who scored 31 points (15 goals, 16 assists) in 50 games for Kunlun this season. "But I think it's awesome for us on many different levels. We're all from the U.S. or Canada, so it's cool to play against your own country. On another note, I think it will give us a lot more exposure in North America while they're watching the games and seeing how much China has grown and this game of hockey is spreading worldwide."
But there is still a process that Yip and the others must go through before they can march into Beijing National Stadium under the Chinese flag at the Winter Games opening ceremony on Feb. 4, 2022. International Ice Hockey Federation rules require that players from another country complete two consecutive seasons and 16 consecutive months competing in national competitions in their new country.
They must have international transfer cards that prove that they have changed affiliation to the national hockey association of their adopted country. The transfer card must be approved and dated at least 16 months before the players can participate in IIHF or Olympic competition. And they must have citizenship in their new country.
Scott MacPherson, a former NHL scout who is Kunlun's general manager, said the North Americans players have begun playing with the China-based KHL and VHL teams in time to fulfill the IIHF's two-year requirement. As for citizenship, MacPherson said players are working through their teams in dealing with the China Ice Hockey Association and other sports ministries in the country.
"We're following the regular path to how you become a passport holder in China," he said.
If they're successful, the North American players of Chinese heritage will have company competing for the Olympic team with players of Chinese descent who are in North America gaining hockey experience.
China has been an IIHF member since 1963, and its men's team is ranked 32nd among 52 teams in the world. The country of nearly 1.4 billion people has 8,384 players, according to the IIHF website. That includes 482 men, 808 women and 7,094 junior players.
Andong Song, who became the first China-born player selected by an NHL team when the New York Islanders chose him in the sixth round (No. 172) of the 2015 NHL Draft, is a defenseman who plays for Cornell University. Song was captain of China's team at the IIHF World Under-18 Division II Group B Championship in 2015 and served as an ambassador along with basketball Hall of Famer Yao Ming in promoting Beijing's Winter Games effort.
Peter Zhong, a forward who was born in Beijing, played 11 games for Arizona State University's NCAA Division I team this season. He has represented China in three world championship tournaments.
Forward Kailin Chen, who played on China's IIHF Under-18 Division II Group B team in 2019, was selected by Niagara (No. 122) in the 2020 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection draft in April.
Tam, who played for Kunlun and its VHL affiliate KRS Heilongjiang, said the combination of North Americans of Chinese descent and native-born players could produce a team that could surprise in 2022.
"Most of our North American guys have at least AHL experience, and some have NHL experience," said Tam, whose mother is French-Canadian and father is three-quarters Chinese from Mozambique and owns two Chinese restaurants in Quebec City. "As much as we don't know who'll play for Team China yet, I think it will be way better than people think."
Photos courtesy Korkka Alexander, Koksharov Roman and Kuzmin Yury, Kontinental Hockey League Photo