When the first puck is dropped at the Beijing Olympic hockey tournament in 2022, Alex Riche will be thinking of his mother.
Riche, 22, was born in Oakville, Ont. where his mother and father still reside in the home where Alex grew up. His story reads like a typical Canadian hockey story — local and junior play leading to a NCAA scholarship — except that Riche’s mother, Jan, was born in Xi’an, China, and that changed everything. After earning a degree in China, Jan ventured overseas, attending graduate school for a master’s degree in engineering at Carleton University. It was there where she met Steve Riche of Ottawa, also an engineering student.
When the pair married and had their only son, Alex, they had no idea they would be paving the way for him to have a unique hockey experience. That Chinese ancestry is allowing Riche to represent his mother’s country at the Beijing Olympic Games. First, he will gain a measure of professional experience by playing for the Kunlun Red Star, China’s team in the KHL, for at least two seasons.
Riche signed the two-year deal with Kunlun last week, following a four-year career at Princeton University. You may know some of Riche’s Princeton teammates — his linemates were Max Veronneau, who signed this spring with the Ottawa Senators and Ryan Kuffner, who signed with the Detroit Red Wings. A fourth Princeton Tiger, defenceman Josh Teves, is now with the Vancouver Canucks.
Riche’s new reality is starting to sink in. He spent two days at a Kunlun development camp in China last week, cutting short his stay because he had exams to finish at Princeton. He will graduate with an economics degree.
On the distant horizon is an almost certain spot on the first ever Chinese Olympic men’s hockey team.
"As far as I know, that is the plan," Riche said. "They want to bring in a number of North American players of Chinese descent. For me personally, I’m just excited to start playing professionally, and when the time comes, play in the Olympics in 2022.
"I’ll focus on it more in a year or two. For now, the focus is the KHL opportunity."
Riche has been on the Kunlun Red Star radar for a while. The team first expressed interest in the playmaking centre after his junior season, when he put up 17 points in 28 Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) games. Riche wanted to complete his degree — education is important in his household — and stayed for two more seasons on one of the NCAA’s most explosive lines, between Veronneau and Kuffner. Combined, they totalled 131 points in the 2017-18 season, en route to the ECAC championship.
Kunlun’s director of hockey operations, Scott MacPherson, liked the way Riche distributed the puck, a trait that doesn’t come naturally to hockey players in China. As a former NHL scout, MacPherson is one of several North American hockey types in the Kunlun organization, including advisory board members Phil Esposito and Mike Keenan.
Nearly every player currently listed on China’s national team has a connection to Kunlun.
Ron Fogarty, head coach at Princeton and part of the North American brain trust lending hockey expertise to China, says Riche is an especially good fit for the Chinese hockey program and to Kunlun.
"He’s a dynamic playmaker," Fogarty said of Riche. "And that’s what they were looking for, to add to their organization. With the culture over there, you look at the past Olympics, you see the Chinese athletes win a lot of individual medals, but there’s not much of a team component occurring."
As part of China’s recent hockey development focus, Fogarty and Riche both attended youth camps in China last summer (Beijing and Shenzhen) and Fogarty expects to return this summer.
At the grass roots level, individual skills are blooming, and there have been some 400 arenas built in China over the past two seasons as they pump resources into hockey. The nuances of the game, including sharing the puck, will take time to learn.
"Even when I was over there working, you’d see players try to skate through all five players and score," Fogarty said. "The passing and positional play isn’t quite there yet with the youth hockey."
Today’s youth players have a longer horizon than the 2022 Games. That will be left to older Chinese players and North Americans of Chinese decent, like Riche and Vancouver-born defenceman Zachary Yuen. Yuen, who also plays for Kunlun, was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets. Potentially, Joshua Ho-Sang, in the New York Islanders organization, will also participate.
The mad race is on — China is trying to bring its men’s hockey program up to speed by 2022. Realistically, there isn’t much hope of China being competitive against the likes of Canada, Russia, the USA and Sweden.
Ranked 33rd in the world, China’s men’s team are outsiders to events like the IIHF world championships in Slovakia. In April, China played in a lower tier worlds event and finished fifth of six nations, losing to Spain, Serbia and Australia.
The Chinese women’s program is slightly more competitive, although the women have not been able to follow up on their lofty fourth place finish at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
Beyond the goodwill of assisting a global hockey neighbour, North American interests have another agenda — getting a piece of the vast Chinese economy. The NHL, NCAA, junior hockey and North American prep schools are all working some angle of the Chinese market.
According to Fogarty, minor hockey is flourishing, but there is a gap in the Chinese program after high school.
"Arizona State is going there in August to play some games," Fogarty said. "The Chinese are trying to build a model similar to the NCAA in the U.S. — to have prep schools with hockey and then move those players onto a college level."
Toronto-based Blyth Academy has plans to soon open sport and academic schools in China.
The NHL has had an eye on China for some time. Last fall, the league staged exhibition games in Beijing and Shenzhen between the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins. It’s not lost on the NHL that while many Chinese are not familiar with the game, the massive population there has resulted in high television numbers for hockey in China.
To coincide with those exhibitions, Wayne Gretzky was in Beijing and received a No. 99 Kunlun sweater, as the proclaimed ‘Hockey Emperor’ of the Red Star team. There was no escaping the symbolism of the Great One at the Great Wall of China.
How quickly Chinese hockey can get up to speed by the time the Olympics roll around, with or without NHL participation in the tournament, remains to be seen. Nothing, though, will dampen the spirits of Riche if he gets to suit up for China in Beijing. In preparation, Riche has been taking Mandarin courses at Princeton, to have at least some facility with a Chinese language.
"I take great pride in where my mom comes from and I’m proud to be half-Chinese," Riche said. "Of course I am very proud to be Canadian, but it would be a great honour to potentially represent my mom and her side of the family at the Olympics."