Chinese men's hockey team playing beyond the boxscore in rematch against Canada

China goalkeeper Ouban Yongli (Paris O'Brien), right, and teammates salute the crowd following a 5-0 loss to Canada on Sunday. China will play Canada again on Tuesday in a qualifying match. (Matt Slocum/The Associated Press - image credit)
China goalkeeper Ouban Yongli (Paris O'Brien), right, and teammates salute the crowd following a 5-0 loss to Canada on Sunday. China will play Canada again on Tuesday in a qualifying match. (Matt Slocum/The Associated Press - image credit)

The Chinese men's hockey team heard the criticism heading into the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

The players — 11 of them with close ties to Canada — knew the hockey world considered them the free space on the proverbial Olympic bingo card. They read the quotes from retired Team Canada head coach Dave King, who worried out loud about lopsided blowouts and resulting embarrassment for the host nation.

Now, King's projections would have come true — most likely — if National Hockey League sharpshooters such as Connor McDavid, Auston Mathews and Cale Makar had played in these Olympics. But, perhaps thankfully for China, the NHL pulled out of the tournament in December due to a rash of game cancellations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

After losing 8-0 to the Americans to open the round-robin, China came agonizingly close in a 3-2 loss to Germany and registered a respectable 26 shots in Sunday's 5-0 shutout loss to Canada.

WATCH | Canada blanks China in preliminary round:

Embarrassed? Not for a second.

Proud? You better believe it.

According to Team China goalie Jeremy Smith, Toronto-born head coach Ivan Zanatta gave the players a pep talk in between periods of the game against Germany.

"He said: 'You need to believe in yourself. We belong here. We're not lucky to be here. We've worked so hard for so long to be here. We deserve to be here to be on that same ice and to have the chance to win,'" Smith said.

WATCH | Full replay of Canada vs. China:

They may not have a realistic chance at winning Tuesday's rematch with Canada. An upset would rightly make headlines across the globe.

"They're a hell of a team, they're very well-coached and a good group of guys," Team China goalie Paris O'Brien, of Coquitlam, B.C., said of Team Canada. "It's going to be a tough game again but we're up for the challenge, I'm sure of that.

"There's lots of things to improve, but we're just here having fun out there, just enjoying the moment. Our main goal here is to spread the awareness of hockey in China and to inspire the younger generation in China."

Opportunity to lay foundation for hockey in China

Inspiring the younger generation in China might seem like a lofty goal. But rewind to the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy where the sport of curling was a foreign concept to most in the host nation.

The organizing committee dispatched buses of seemingly disinterested school kids to the curling venue in nearby Pinerolo, so the stands didn't look empty to those watching on television. In Beijing, Italy won gold in mixed curling. No one would have seen that coming back in 2006.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

"We are the first page in the history book for Team China because we're all Chinese Olympians," said Smith, who was born in Dearborn, Mich. and is known in China as Shimisi Jieruimi. "It's an honour and it's something to be really proud of."

Team China is composed of native-born Chinese players, Canadian and American players of Chinese ancestry, such as O'Brien and Brandon Yip, and other North Americans such as Smith and Jake Chelios, the son of Hockey Hall of Fame defenceman Chris Chelios.

They all play for the state-owned Kunlun Red Star, of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. And they're accustomed to losing with just nine wins this season in 48 KHL games.

"There's a bigger picture here," said Yip, a Vancouver product who made 174 NHL appearances with Colorado, Nashville and Phoenix. "It's not only about competing in the Olympics. It's about making China proud.

"Hockey is a great game and it's for everyone."

Canada prepared for rematch

It's hard to know whether Team Canada played down to the level of its opposition on Sunday against China. More is expected from the powerhouse hockey nation in Tuesday's game, given that Canada needs to win to advance to the quarter-final.

"Our guys are rested and ready to go," said Team Canada captain Eric Staal. "I like our guys, and we'll continue to try and develop as we go forward."

Yip figures China has yet to play its best game in the tournament.

"If you rewind to the first game against the United States, we made a lot of mistakes and they made us pay for it," said Yip, who is listed as Jinguang Ye in the Olympic database. "Then we had a strong game against Germany and a strong two periods against Canada.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

"We've just got to figure out a way to put a full 60 minutes together, because these are all-star teams. You can't take your foot off the gas at any point or they'll make us pay."

Even if the Canadians make China pay on Tuesday, the Olympics will go down as a success in men's hockey — at least for the players representing the host nation.

"To be the first goalie in Olympic history for the Chinese is truly an honour," Smith said. "I'm proud to wear the sweater, I'm thankful for the opportunity.

"It's pretty surreal."