The Olympic legacy
by|08 FEB 2024
photo: © Karl Denham
When China and Korea met at the IIHF U20 World Championship Division IIA recently, it was a clash between two programs lifted by recent Olympic action. For these countries, the experience of PyeongChang 2018 and Beijing 2022 provided both a glimpse of the big time and a big dose of inspiration for the future.

Building on Beijing

For China, the Beijing games was part of a huge national push to promote winter sports. There are already visible returns, with the women’s hockey team returning to the top division of World Championship play this year.

In the men’s game, progress has been less eye-catching, but remains visible. The senior team consolidated its return to Division I earlier this year, while the U20 team won promotion last season and followed that up with a fourth-place finish in Scotland in December.

Kailin Chen, also known as Eric when playing in the Ontario Junior Hockey League for the Pickering Panthers, featured in men’s Division IB before captaining his country’s juniors this season. And he’s still excited about the Games experience – and the chance to play alongside some of his country’s Olympians.

“It was cool to have [the Games] in Beijing,” he said. “We definitely took time out to watch those games and everybody in the junior program saw it all. It inspires us to work harder, to practice more, to take everything more seriously.

“Now we want to take Chinese hockey to a higher level. We already won promotion with the juniors and this year we are motivated to keep getting better every day.”

Chen, 19, is a relatively rare example of a Chinese-born player with North American experience on the senior national team. In April 2023 he joined the core of China’s Olympic team – the likes of captain Brandon Yip, flying winger Tyler Wong et al – for the Division IB tournament in Tallinn. Having watched these players flying the flag at the Games, now it was time to tap right into that experience.

“For me as a younger player, it was great to get together with those guys,” he recalled. “I really learned a lot – everything, skill wise, play wise, attitude. It was just seeing how to be, how to treat stuff. And as well as learning a lot, I really enjoyed it.”
photo: © Karl Denham

Big crowds and goalie coaches

For Korea’s youngsters, it’s somewhat different. In 2018, most of the current crop of juniors were in their early teens. The memories are less detailed, but PyeongChang left a strong impression on these players.

Kim Sihwan, leading scorer at the World Championship tournament in December, talked enthusiastically about the motivation that he took from seeing Korean players lining up against the best in the world.

“I was pretty young at the time, but I remember the size of the crowds going to those games,” he said. “That was the point when I started thinking that I really wanted to be part of this, to follow these players and get a shot at going to the Games myself one day.”

There is also a direct link to PyeongChang in the Korean junior program. Goaltending coach Shin So Jung played at the Games for the women’s team, dressing for five games. That was a team that famously united players from North and South; now it is starting to nurture Korea’s hockey future.

“It’s inspiring to have people in the room who were part of [the Games],” Kim added. “We saw how the Olympics gave a lot to Korean hockey back in 2018 and it’s up to us to keep going and make it better.”

Dreaming of 2026

Both Kim and Chen could be involved as their countries look to embark on a new Olympic adventure. Korea and China start their qualification campaigns in February and these young players are hoping for a recall to the men’s program after featuring in World Championship play last season.

China returns to Great Britain for its qualifier, facing Romania, Serbia and the host nation in Cardiff. Korea will be in Poland, facing Ukraine and qualifier Estonia as well as the host. The qualification tournaments are scheduled for Feb. 8-11, 2024.