China / Sports

KHL bracing for Red alert

By Murray Greig (China Daily) Updated: 2016-12-30 07:02

Beijing expansion team winning fans with feisty pursuit of playoff position

A lineup worthy of the United Nations is keeping Kunlun Red Star on the rise - and earning the respect of a burgeoning fan base.

As China's lone entry in the Kontinental Hockey League, the Beijing club is more than holding its own heading into the home stretch of its inaugural 60-game season.

Expected to be little more than cannon fodder for the other 28 teams in the pro circuit that ranks second only to North America's NHL, Kunlun has stayed competitive.

Thanks to four wins in its past six games, Red Star sits in third place in the eight-team Chernyshev Division and sixth in the 15-team Eastern Conference, six points north of the playoff cut.

Perhaps most impressive is that coach Vladimir Yurzinov Jr. is getting the job done with a patchwork roster that was finalized just days before the season opened in August.

The team captain is 32-year-old Finnish defenseman Janne Jalasvaara. The top two scorers are centers Chad Rau, an American, and Sean Collins, a Canadian.

The No 1 goaltender is an acrobatic Russian, Andrei Makarov, while speedy Frenchman Damien Fleury has emerged as the team's deadliest shootout specialist.

Add another Canadian, seven more Russians, seven more Finns, two Slovaks, two Swedes and two Chinese to the mix and it's a journeyman roster that spans the globe.

At the start of this week, Rau ranked 33rd in KHL scoring with 38 points in 43 games, while Collins, who played 21 games for the NHL's Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets from 2012-15, was tied for 45th with 26 points.

The homegrown contingent is led by 19-year-old Ying Rudi, the first Chinese-born player signed to a KHL contract. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound center played youth hockey in Beijing before moving to Chicago at age nine to join an elite program.

Ying was signed out of prep school by the Toronto Patriots of the Ontario Junior Hockey League and represented China in three U-18 world championship tournaments (division 2), earning All-Star honors at the 2014 competition.

Before the season opened in late August, there was media speculation that Red Star would take a cue from Chinese Super League soccer clubs that have bought themselves instant credibility by doling out huge dollars to sign foreign talent.

"There is no truth to rumors about us having tens of millions of dollars to buy any player we want," Red Star sporting director Vladimir Krechin said at the time.

"Nobody in China is going to spend outlandish sums, and our budget is comparable to those of other non-Russian clubs in the KHL.

"All the financing for Kunlun Red Star is Chinese, and they regard this funding as an investment, not a bottomless pit. In other words, they expect a return."

While still far from being what the team needs to break even, attendance at Le Sport Center in Wukesong is steadily improving - and the product on the ice has captured the imagination of both foreign and Chinese fans.

"The KHL is very competitive, and even though Kunlun is an expansion team with a lot of new players, they've shown they are capable of beating anybody on a good night," said Rick Adams, a 25-year-old from Vancouver, Canada, who was in the crowd of around 3,000 watching Red Star drop a 1-0 overtime thriller to Amur Khabarovsk on Christmas Eve.

"This is great entertainment ... and ticket prices are a fraction of what it costs to watch an NHL game."

Adams' 21-year-old Chinese girlfriend agreed, adding: "This is my first time seeing hockey in person, and I love the speed and the tough contact. We will keep coming back to cheer for Red Star, and hopefully they will go a long way in the playoffs."

The KHL postseason opens on Feb 21 with the top eight teams from each conference squaring off in best-of-seven elimination series, culminating with the Gagarin Cup final in mid-April.

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