Unless you were cheering for Finland or Slovakia, the vibes around the men's Olympic tournament were pretty sullen in Beijing. No NHLers meant a lack of marquee talent and the gameplay, for the most part, should have been sponsored by NyQuil.
One country definitely benefitted from the absence of NHLers however and that was host China. Because if the best in the world had shown up, the home team would have been brutalized.
As it was, China's national side was held together by players born and raised in North America, from Spencer Foo and Ryan Sproul to Jeremy Smith and Tyler Wong. The players actually developed in China were kept on the bench for most of the tournament and did not make significant contributions. Using the roster of KHL squad Kunlun Red Star enabled China to avoid embarrassment on the scoresheet (they didn't win any games, but they didn't lose 32-0, either), but it left the hockey community with a loud question unanswered: What is the state of hockey in China?
For years now, China has been seen as a massive potential market for hockey, with NHL teams sending over players and ambassadors to grow the sport. Chinese businesses returned the favor early on, buying ads in NHL arenas (O.R.G. Packaging being the most prominent).
But the grassroots game has yet to make an impact internationally, despite the fact China had all the motivation in the world to get better, given that they were hosting the 2022 Olympics. Now, perhaps it's not fair to ding China for a lack of growth given that we're talking about less than a decade of actual effort on their part, but from the insiders I've spoken to, a big part of the problem was the nation's General Administration of Sport.
Specifically, the ministry's problem has allegedly been one of bureaucracy: The higher-ups rarely visited the rinks, settling instead for phone calls with the folks doing the work on the ground. Not wanting to get in trouble, those folks on the ground told the higher-ups that everything was going great, even though it wasn't. By the time everyone realized China's home-grown players wouldn't be able to keep up with their international peers, it was too late. Hence, a bunch of guys from Canada, the U.S. and even Russia were drafted to play for the national team.
Kunlun has always been import-heavy, dating back to the first Red Star team in 2016-17, which was led by the likes of Chad Rau, Sean Collins and even Alexei Ponikarovsky. Having said that, it's too bad progress wasn't made on home-grown talent in the past five years.
In terms of grassroots action, there is progress being made in China: Arenas are a much more common sight in the nation than they were 10 years ago and with more than 10,000 junior players (according to the IIHF), China has more players in that age bracket than Slovakia. Unfortunately for China, none of those players are in the same universe as Juraj Slafkovsky.
But that's not to say that it will always be that way. Coaches from North America continue to head over to China to teach skills and systems and the massive population pool still represents a great area for growth in hockey.
The will must be there, however. With the Olympics over, it would not be a stretch to assume that China would feel less pressure to improve its hockey program. There is even a rumor in international circles that Kunlun Red Star will fold (the team is done for the season anyway since the KHL cancelled the remainder of the regular season and will go straight to playoffs on March 1).
Personally, I'm hoping the rumor does not come true. I like the fact the KHL has a team in China, even if most of its players are not Chinese yet. Developing into a hockey nation does not happen overnight, but with the right conditions, it can still happen for China. And let's face it; with the dwindling number of countries willing to host the Olympics, China may need to throw together another men's hockey team in the near future. Here's hoping that next squad is all local - and ready to battle.