Ice hockey-Chinese divided over imports on ice

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BEIJING, Feb 5 (Reuters) - The large number of foreign-born players in China's Olympic ice hockey teams has split opinion in the country, with some on social media decrying the lack of home-grown talent while others argue it is necessary to grow the sport domestically.

In a bid to close the gap with traditional hockey powers, hosts China have stocked their rosters with Canadian and U.S.-born players including several with no obvious Chinese heritage.

The men's team counts 10 China-born players on their 25-man roster, while the women's squad list 11 of their 23 players as having been born in the country.

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"This year we naturalised so many players, but how come so many of them don't have Chinese blood?", Weibo user EugeneGriffith wrote on Saturday.

The English-language on-ice banter among players and the foreign-looking appearance of many came under greater scrutiny after China's women lost their opener 3-1 to the Czech Republic on Thursday, with Mi Le scoring the host's goal.

China coach Brian Idalski was asked afterwards about Mi's nationality, since there was no information on her Olympic bio for place of birth and residence, which there is for most competitors.

"I really don't want to answer that,” said Idalski, an American, who answered every other question.

Mi Le is better known as Hannah Miller, who was born in Canada and represented her country as an under-18 player.

After playing for St. Lawrence University in the United States, she joined the Chinese-owned KRS Vanke Rays in 2018, which for the past two seasons has been based in Russia.

PRAGMATIC CHINA

China does not allow dual citizenship, but for sports where it has historically lagged, including soccer, it has sometimes been pragmatic.

"If you didn't tell me, I wouldn't know this was China's men's ice hockey team," user kaixinwanmao wrote on Saturday, attaching a photo of the men's squad.

Kunlun Red Star, the Chinese-owned team that plays in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League from which China's men's roster are drawn, described them as "Heritage and Import" players when it tweeted the Chinese versions of their names, including Jieruimi Shimisi, born in Michigan as Jeremy Smith.

"I did not renounce my citizenship, they never asked me to. They have a whole team that has worked with that," he told reporters after practice on Wednesday.

China's squads appear to be uncomfortable with the question, with most of the women's players avoiding the post-match mixed-zone and all of the men's practice sessions scheduled through Friday closed to media, the only team making that prohibition.

To be sure, performance matters to public opinion. Asian-American freestyle skiing superstar Eileen Gu, in contention for three golds, has been embraced as China's biggest Olympic draw.

After the Chinese women beat Denmark 3-1 on Friday, the response on Weibo was overwhelmingly positive.

"The future of Chinese sports is openness and recognising dual nationality," wrote Weibo user theworldismyplayground.

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Reporting by Eduardo Baptista and Steve Keating; Editing by Tony Munroe

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