YORKTON - When the last edition of the Winter Olympics were held this past February in Beijing, China it was something of an experiment in terms of hockey.
On one hand the Games had to deal with the National Hockey League opting out in terms of sending players, meaning the play was going to be far from the best-versus-best.
While it was ultimately the risk associated with COVID-19 which was the reason given for the NHL keeping its players home it doesn’t take a lot of reading between the lines to sense NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had little interest in this particular edition of the Olympics.
While Bettman has done some good things for the NHL, if you overlook his treatment of Quebec City which is difficult to do as a Canadian, and the associated folly in the desert which are the Arizona Coyotes, it’s hard to suggest he has a grand vision for hockey outside his little empire.
One might go as far to suggest Bettman realizes when you put the best of each country on the ice at an Olympics you note how lacklustre a lot of NHL games are by comparison.
So the decision to keep players home was one it might be suspected was something Bettman was more than happy to make.
Then there was the question of a team from China being up to such a high level tournament.
To the credit of all involved, the Chinese team wisely turned to players with ties to China to bolster the roster, and while they never won a game, they weren’t the embarrassment some thought they might be.
That was thanks to players such as Parker Foo, who hails from Edmonton, but played for China, alongside brother Spencer Foo.
Both brothers, have actually played for China the last two seasons toiling with Kunlun Red Star (Beijing), in the predominantly Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League. It was basically the Red Star team that took to the Olympic ice for China in February.
Parker Foo has played 67 games with Red Star over the 2020-21/2021-22 seasons, and is currently in Moscow for the team’s training camp for the upcoming season.
Parker said he got his chance to play in the Olympics in-part because his brother opened the door. He explained it was a case of asking his agent if there was an opening since Spencer was playing.
“I just asked him if there was any chance I could play on the Olympic team as well. A couple of days later he had an offer for me,” said Parker Foo in an interview with Yorkton This Week.
“Obviously it was something I never really expected, but it’s something every kid dreams about.
“I was just grateful for the opportunity.”
Playing with his brother made it sweeter still.
“Growing up we were never able to play together because of the age gap . . . I was super gratified for that opportunity as well,” he said.
Foo said playing with the Red Stars has been something of an adventure heading into the Olympics and continuing into his third year with the team.
“The team has been playing out of Moscow because of COVID,” he said, adding that has been “a big adjustment,” although the city “is beautiful.”
“They’re great people. Life’s pretty easy over here, compared to what a lot of people might think.”
Of course there was the question of whether Foo should go to Moscow given the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“It was something in the back of the mind a little bit,” said Foo, adding he decided to go simply because it was his job. “I’m a hockey player.”
As for the hockey in the KHL, Foo said it isn’t so different from pro hockey in North America at the tops levels here.
“The hockey is pretty similar,” he said, adding the ice is larger which puts skating at a premium, which actually suits his style well.
“I like to play a fast game,” said Foo.
As for talent, Foo said there are a number of KHL players who have played in the NHL over the years, and others he said could play in the NHL but have chose to play in their own country.
“It’s a great league. There’s lots of really skilled guys over here that could easily be playing in the NHL,” he said. “. . . I’m definitely privileged to be playing here.”
It’s a high level which is why the Red Stars looked to improve the team’s level of play leading up to the Olympics.
“That’s why they put this whole program together,” offered Foo.
The concept worked and its also why Foo is back in Moscow this fall.
“I’ve already made a lot of friends, a lot of great relationships,” he said, adding that is part of why the team was solid at the Olympics.
“We really worked together as a team.”
The hard work kept the team in games at the Olympics losing 8-0 to the Americans to open the round-robin, then a close 3-2 loss to Germany and a respectable 26 shots in a 5-0 shutout loss to Canada.
And they seem to be getting better. This year China finished first in Division II Group A, meaning they will be promoted to Division I, Group B in 2023, with teams such as Ukraine, Japan, Netherlands, Estonia and Serbia.
“Each year we want to keep moving up the ladder,” said Foo.
Foo said he’d love to be back at the Olympics with China in a few years, but admitted the team has a lot to do to qualify for that.
Still, that the Chinese team played better than most expected is good news for the growth of hockey in a country with so many potential players, added Foo.
“All along they’re trying to grow the game in China,” he said, adding the Olympics were a big step in that effort. “. . . China is just an untapped market for hockey.
“If just a handful of kids pick up a hockey stick we’ve done our job.”