Familiar faces, unfamiliar names as China takes to the ice

3 minute read

Apr 2, 2019; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Red Wings defenseman Jake Chelios (84) smiles as the team congratulates goaltender Jimmy Howard (35) after defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

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BEIJING, Feb 1 (Reuters) - (This Feb. 1 story has been refiled to add dropped letter in name in the 8th paragraph)

Growing up Jake Chelios and Jeremy Smith might have dreamed of playing for the United States men's Olympic ice hockey team but instead will faceoff against them at the Beijing Winter Games, coming to the rescue of a China squad in need of help.

The practice of athletes from nations with an abundance of talent - such as Kenya in long-distance running or Brazil in soccer - switching to represent other eligible nations has become an increasing feature of sport.

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But few teams have relied so much on foreign talent the way China's men's hockey squad has with a 25-man roster that includes just six homegrown nationals, the remaining players coming from Canada (11), United States (7) and Russia (1).

"No I didn't," laughed Chelios, when asked if he ever thought he would be playing at an Olympics wearing a China jersey. "Since we've been over here for three years you start to feel a closeness to China.

"We've been eating Chinese food, living the Chinese culture so there's a certain closeness you feel with China and you start to feel you want to win for them."

All the foreign born players have been given Chinese names and wear red and yellow uniforms.

Chelios, the Chicago-born son of three-time Stanley Cup champion and four-time U.S. Olympian Chris Chelios, is listed on the team sheet as Jieke Kailiaosi.

Canada's Brandon Yip got his Chinese name Ye Jinguang from his grandmother while Smith, a goaltender who played 10 games for the NHL's Colorado Avalanche, wears his name Shimisi Jieruimi on his mask.

"I think it is an honour to play in the Olympics but to dream about playing for the host team in an Olympics I didn't think it would ever be a chance for me in my lifetime so the odds are small but I'm thankful," said Smith after practice on Tuesday.

"It's every four years, not a lot of people get the opportunity to try and win a gold medal."

Aside from China written across the front of their jerseys at first glance team practicing at the National Indoor Stadium more resembles a team you might find on any North American rink.

The chatter on ice is English, even from their Italian coach Ivan Zanatta.

"We're pretty diverse as you can see on our roster but that doesn't matter once you put on the China jersey or the Red Star jersey we're all one family," said Yip, who played 174 NHL games with Colorado, Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes.

"It's been great to see a lot of the China heritage players have grown since day one they're really turning into some great hockey players and think we'll put that on display."

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Reporting by Steve Keating in Beijing. Editing by Christian Radnedge

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