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Red Star primed for home opener in Shanghai

By China Daily | China Daily | Updated: 2017-09-08 09:52

What a difference a year makes.

By the time Kunlun Red Star made its home debut last season, China's expansion team in the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League had already fallen into an erratic win-loss pattern en route to a record of 28-29-3 - good enough for eighth place in the Eastern conference, followed by a quick exit from the playoffs.

So far, Year 2 has been much better.

Hitting the ice at Shanghai's Sanlin Sports Center on Saturday to face Helsinki-based Jokerit, coach Mike Keenan's charges occupy first place in the KHL East with five wins in their first seven outings - all on the road.

Red Star split last season's home schedule between Shanghai and Beijing. This season, all 28 home games will be played in Shanghai, where Keenan was introduced to the media on Thursday.

"I want to thank and welcome our young warriors and especially head coach Mike Keenan," said team chairman Zhao Xiaoyu. "China is your home. Shanghai is your home. Welcome home!"

Keenan, the only coach to helm championship teams in both the NHL (1994 New York Rangers) and KHL (2014 Metallburg Magnitogorsk), was handed Kunlun's reins when Vladimir Yurzinov stepped down in March. The 67-yearold Canadian immediately instilled a palpable sense of pride and confidence in his players - along with a long-term vision for elevating Chinese hockey.

"China will host the 2022 Winter Olympics, and by that time this country will have the biggest hockey program in the world," he said.

"We are very pleased and proud to be a pioneer of that program. To win a championship at any level, in any field of sports, is an unbelievably difficult task, but we are a very competitive team. And China will be competitive in hockey."

One of Keenan's first moves with Red Star was to sign Wojtek Wolski, a 6-foot-3 winger who tallied 267 points in 450 NHL games with the Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers, Phoenix Coyotes and Florida Panthers before jumping to the KHL in 2013.

Last Sunday the 31-year-old Wolski sniped the winning goal in a 2-1 victory over Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg - his first appearance in the KHL since sustaining a broken neck while playing for Magnitogorsk 11 months ago.

Wolski's instant chemistry with linemate Cory Kane has produced five goals and 11 points between them, while 6-foot-2, 205-pound center Kyle Chipchura, a former first-round draft pick by the Montreal Canadiens, has added a new dimension of toughness to the squad.

Another highlight for Red Star during its season-opening seven-game road trip was the play of 19-year-old defenseman Pavel Vorobei, who on Wednesday was named KHL Rookie of the Week.

The 6-foot-3 Belarusian was plus-4 in three games, with four shots and five blocks while averaging 15:46 of ice time. Forward Derek Dun, born in Canada of Chinese descent, has also been a bright addition since being signed at a June tryout camp in Vancouver.

"There are eight Chinese players on Red Star," said Zhao. "Along with other younger Chinese players on our affiliated teams, they will form the backbone of the national team."

Zack Yuen, a Chinese-Canadian defenseman, was the first player of Chinese descent to sign with Kunlun last season. He's thrilled to see more homegrown talent.

"There was just me on the team for most of last season," said Yuen. "That wasn't much fun. Now there are more Chinese, and it feels great!

The KHL's regular season runs until March 1, including an extended break to accommodate the Winter Olympics in South Korea. The league will shut down on Jan 24 to allow Team Russia to prepare for the Games, then reboot on Feb 25.

The playoffs are scheduled to open on March 3 and will conclude no later than April 26.

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