On February 10, China’s men’s ice hockey team laced up against the U.S. squad in what many predicted would be a good ol’ fashion shellacking. Unsurprisingly, the outcome was a decisive 8-0 loss for Team China at the hands of the Americans.
Predictions leading into the Olympics put the Chinese team at a gross disadvantage. Many pundits predicted the Games’ hosts would either pull out of the contest to avoid embarrassment or end up getting crushed in the first round by American and Canadian squads stacked with the best of the NHL.
But with the NHL announcing on December 22 that their players would be sitting the Olympic contest out, it seemed China would stand a much better chance. And while 8-0 is unquestionably a lop-sided score, the fact the Chinese national team kept the U.S. side from running into the double digits is a victory in its own right.
Aside from the all-out clobbering by the Americans — and a much closer 3-2 loss to Germany today, viewers may have noticed something else about Team China: Many of the players are not ethnically Chinese. Out of the 48 players on China’s men’s and women’s ice hockey teams, 28 were born outside of China, and six are not of Chinese descent.
China does not recognize dual citizenship, but the enforcement of this rule is less clear when it comes to foreign-born Olympic athletes. China’s ‘Snow Princess,’ Eileen Gu, has been tight-lipped about the status of her U.S. citizenship. Still, netizens speculate that she has retained her American passport, as she wrote in a March 2021 Weibo post that she qualified for the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program, which is only available to U.S. nationals and permanent residents, after her move to Team China.
U.S.-born Jeremy Smith, who plays ice hockey for Team China, said outright that he did not give up his passport to make the big move, and Chinese officials likely afforded other foreign players the same leniency.
So who are these foreign nationals donning red on the ice? Below, we’ve rounded up six players on the Team China men’s ice hockey team who were not born in the People’s Republic.
Ethan Werek may not be ethnically Chinese, but he does have some fascinating family roots in the Middle Kingdom. Werek’s grandparents, Nehemia and Luba Werek, are of Russian Jewish descent. During World War I, they fled eastern Russia to the city of Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province in Northeast China. (During the early-20th century, Harbin had one of the largest Jewish communities in East Asia, and Russian is still one of the 55 government-recognized ethnic minorities in China.)
His grandparents gave birth to two of his aunts in Shanghai before the family moved to the newly-formed state of Israel in 1948. His father was born in Israel, and the family moved to Canada in the 1950s, where Ethan Werek was born in Ontario on June 7, 1991.
He started playing junior ice hockey in Kingston, Ontario, in 2007 and was a first-round pick for the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs. He was the 47th overall pick by the New York Rangers in the 2009 NHL draft but never made his NHL debut. Instead, Werek played nine seasons in the American Hockey League (AHL) and ECHL and did a one-year stint in the Czech Republic’s Extraliga Ledního Hokeje (ELH) before joining Beijing’s HC Kunlun Red Star (KRS), the only Chinese team in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), for the 2019-20 season.
In his first three KHL seasons, Werek has racked up 31 goals and 38 assists in 159 total games. So far, he’s quite happy with his career in the East, telling The Forward in a phone interview from Beijing: “I kind of pinch myself every morning. I just feel so lucky to be given this opportunity.”
A native of Greater Vancouver, British Columbia, Brandon Yip was born to a Chinese father and Irish-Chinese mother in 1985. He was the eighth round, 239th overall pick by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2004 draft and made his NHL debut five years later, in 2009. In the interim, he played four seasons at Boston University, earning the title of Hockey East Rookie of the Year in 2006, with 31 points scored in 39 games that season.
Yip played nearly 200 games in the NHL, including two seasons with the Nashville Predators and one with the Phoenix Coyotes, and eventually moved to Europe to compete in the DEL, Germany’s national ice hockey league.
Prior to signing with KRS in 2017, Yip had never been to China. In an interview with the International Ice Hockey Federation, he said that while he did have some Chinese traditions in his family growing up, he hoped to connect further with his ethnic heritage during his career in China.
View this post on InstagramA post shared by Brandon Yip (@byipper)
A post shared by Brandon Yip (@byipper)
“Before all this, I never even had the opportunity to visit China. I was so focused on my hockey career in North America and then in Europe. But I wanted to take this opportunity when it came my way, and it’s been awesome,” he said in the interview.
Now the team captain for KRS, Yip has played for 13 different teams through his professional career and has made 58 goals and 54 assists in his four KHL seasons so far.
Ryan Sproul was born in Mississauga, Ontario, in 1991 and began his hockey career with the Ontario Junior Hockey League in the 2009-10 season. He moved up to the OHL in 2010 and played three seasons with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He was the third-ranked defenseman in the league during the 2011-12 season and recorded 23 goals and 31 assists in his 61 games played with the team.
Sproul was drafted to the Detroit Red Wings after his first season in the OHL, the 55th overall pick in the 2011 draft, and played two seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the AHL before making his NHL debut in 2013.
That same year, his last in the OHL, he was awarded the Max Kaminsky Trophy for defenseman of the year and earned the title of Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Defenseman of the Year, the latter of which is selected from the winners of league trophies in various Canadian hockey leagues.
Over the next several years, Sproul bounced between the NHL and AHL, completing his final NHL season with the New York Rangers in 2017-18. He joined KRS in 2019 and has since played 136 games in three KHL seasons, with 18 goals and 43 assists. Sproul was the top-ranked defenseman for Red Star last season, with 24 points.
Zach Yuen was born in Canada in 1998 to an immigrant father from Hong Kong and a Vancouver-born mother with roots in Guangdong province. Like Brandon Yip, he hails from Vancouver, British Columbia and comes from a family of hockey lovers. His sister plays hockey at the collegiate level, and Yuen first put on a pair of skates at the tender age of 2.
In 2011, Yuen played for the Tri-City Americans in the Western Hockey League (WHL) when he became the first defenseman of Chinese heritage to be drafted into the NHL, the 119th overall pick by the Winnipeg Jets.
He didn’t end up competing in the NHL, however, instead completing two more WHL seasons before making his professional debut with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. He went on to play five seasons with five different teams in the ECHL before joining KRS for the 2016-17 season. Yuen was the first ethnic Chinese player to score in a KHL game, and in his four KHL seasons so far, he has made 145 appearances with a total of six goals and 12 assists.
View this post on InstagramA post shared by Zachary Yuen | 袁俊杰 YuanJunJie (@zyuen_93)
A post shared by Zachary Yuen | 袁俊杰 YuanJunJie (@zyuen_93)
Yuen expressed his dream of representing Team China at the Olympics during an interview in 2018, and the dream became a reality on January 28, 2022. A fluent Mandarin and Cantonese speaker, he hopes to be an ambassador for ice hockey in China by engaging with fans and promoting the sport in East Asia.
“There were no idols for me growing up because there was no Chinese player at that level,” he said in a 2018 interview. He even has custom-made skates emblazoned with China’s red five-star flag.
Since moving East, he’s been a prominent figure in Chinese media, with multiple appearances in GQ China, a feature in the Financial Times, and an appearance on the runway at a Shenzhen fashion show.
Born in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1989, Jeremy Smith is one of three goaltenders on the Chinese Olympic ice hockey team. Smith was the 54th overall pick by the Nashville Predators in the 2007 NHL entry draft and bounced between nine different minor league teams over the next decade.
He played for Team USA in the 2007-08 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships and played a single season in the Ontario Hockey League, where he earned the Dave Pinkey Trophy — awarded to goaltenders on the team with the best save percentage. He was the 2010 ECHL playoff MVP and had a brief 10-game stint with the Colorado Avalanche during the 2016-17 season.
View this post on InstagramA post shared by Jeremy Smith OLY 杰瑞米史密斯 (@jeremymonroesmith)
A post shared by Jeremy Smith OLY 杰瑞米史密斯 (@jeremymonroesmith)
Smith was playing for the New York Islanders-affiliated Bridgeport Tigers in the 2018-19 season when his agent contacted him about an opportunity in the East. Initially, Smith thought it was a joke. But he ended up signing a two-year contract with KRS, understanding that he would also compete for Team China at the 2022 Olympic Games.
So far, Smith has played 74 games in his three seasons with KRS and has an average save percentage of .907 in the league.
Jake Chelios is the son of NHL Hall-of-Famer Chris Chelios, an NHL veteran of 25 years who ended his professional career as a defenseman for the Detroit Red Wings in 1999.
The junior Chelios was born in Chicago in 1991 and began his ice hockey career with the Detroit Red Wings under-18s in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League.
Chelios played for four seasons with Michigan State University and competed for seven years in the AHL and ECHL before making his NHL debut with the Detroit Red Wings in 2018. Jake and Chris Chelios were the sixth father-son duo in franchise history, and Jake played the final five games of the season before returning to the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins.
View this post on InstagramA post shared by Jake Chelios (@jchelios42)
A post shared by Jake Chelios (@jchelios42)
Chelios signed a two-year contract to KRS on May 23, 2019, and has since played 129 games in three seasons with the organization, racking up seven goals and 24 assists.
In an interview after the loss to Team USA, he described his Olympic appearance as “an amazing experience,” adding, “Wearing this jersey for the first time was really special. And it was something I’ll remember the rest of my life.”
When asked if he now held a Chinese passport, Chelios responded, “Ah. You gotta talk to the Chinese staff about that one.”
Cover image via nzihf on Flickr
We highlight our top stories each week in an email newsletter that goes out every Monday - hot, fresh, and straight to your inbox.
Don't worry, we don't spam
Thousands of earthlings have signed up for our newsletter, and you should do the same