Like many a fateful journey, this one started with a phone call and an impulse.
Paris O’Brien was attending South Delta Secondary School in 2017 where he was enrolled in its renowned hockey academy to prepare for the next step in his hockey career with an affiliate of the BC Hockey League’s Chilliwack Chiefs when his cell phone rang. It was afamily friend inviting him to a practice at the Scotiabank Barn in Burnaby.
O’Brien, who grew up in Coquitlam’s Westwood Plateau neighbourhood and started playing goalie in the city’s minor hockey system because he was always skating backward to defend anyway, thought it sounded casual, a fun time to possibly reconnect with some of his old buddies from Burnaby Winter Club, where he’d played Midget the year before.
He decided to cut class for the day.
When O’Brien got to the rink he was puzzled that all the other players on the ice shared his Chinese heritage. Someone told him the practice was actually the first day of a two-day camp to identify young Chinese- Canadian players with potential to play for the Kunlun Red Star, a new Beijing-based professional team in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) that would become the nucleus for China’s first Olympic hockey team.
O’Brien, whose Chinese name — Yongli Ouban — was bestowed by his maternal grandparents from China’s Guangdong province, thought he was being pranked, that it was an elaborate scam.
Then Mike Keenan intercepted him in the hallway.
The veteran coach of several NHL teams, including an inglorious stretch with the Vancouver Canucks, was the general manager and coach of Red Star at the time and he told O’Brien he liked what he saw.
Keenan offered the lanky 17-year-old an opportunity to continue his hockey development with Kunlun’s junior team that plays in the MHL, Russia’s version of the Canadian Hockey League. He peppered his pitch with the names of NHLers who’d made their way to the KHL. And of course, the carrot of potentially playing in the 2022 Olympic hockey tournament.
Still skeptical, O’Brien brought his mom, Brenda, to the camp’s second day.
O’Brien said he was intrigued. He’d thought his hockey future was already mapped out — a season or two in the BCHL then on to an NCAA program where he could also continue his education, something very important to his parents. In fact, he’d already had some feelers from Ivy League schools like Brown, Princeton and Harvard.
Uprooting his life to travel on his own to the other side of the world and play in a formative program he knew nothing about was like crumpling that map into a ball then opening it upside down.
“You don’t get another chance like this,” he said. “It’s once in a lifetime.”
‘It just clicked’
To get a better feel for what might be in store, O’Brien and his mom traveled to Finland for a more intense, month-long training camp. He said they were impressed with the organization’s professionalism.
“Everything was super-organized, from the staff to the accommodation to our meals,” O’Brien said. “After that, it just clicked it was the right decision.”
With the support of his parents, O’Brien moved to Harbin, China, where he played nine games for the Kunlun Red Star junior team. Having a few other Canadians on the team, like forward Ryan Riggs who now plays for Simon Fraser University, helped cushion the culture shock.
The next season — 2018-19 — O’Brien played 45 games with the junior team and two with Kunlun’s minor pro team in the VHL, Russia’s version of the American Hockey League. And while he won only three times, he said it was exciting to be a part of building something new.
Only three years earlier, when O’Brien was 15, he’d taken a year off playing competitive games to focus on his own development and here he was, introducing the game to 1.4 billion Chinese.
O’Brien said conversations he’d had with his dad as they worked out together during his hiatus, bouncing balls back and forth in the driveway of their home to keep his reflexes sharp, helped get him through the isolation of being so far from home and the drudgery of losing.
“He taught me you can only do what you can control,” O’Brien said of his dad, who’d studied psychology in university.
Last July, O’Brien, now 21, was elevated to Kunlun’s KHL team, pencilled in as its third-string goalie.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Red Star had decamped Beijing in 2020 for Mytishchi, a suburb northeast of Moscow, where players shared an entire hotel with Kunlun’s women’s team and played out of the 7,000-seat Mytishchi Ice Arena.
O’Brien said the sense of displacement was lessened by the team’s easier travel schedule in a league that stretches across more than 11 time zones, and the embrace of fans who adopted Kunlun as their own after the city’s previous KHL team, Atlant Moscow Oblast, folded in 2016.
On Dec. 2, O’Brien was tapped by Red Star coach Ivano Zanatta for his first start, against divisional rival Neftekhmik. He stopped 37 of the 38 shots to lead Kunlun to a 2-1 win, only the team’s 10th victory of the season.
“I knew it was an opportunity,” said O’Brien, who was named the game’s most valuable player.
Five days later, the International Ice Hockey Federation confirmed China could participate in the men’s Olympic tournament, despite misgivings about the country’s ability to be competitive.
“That’s what we were all building towards,” O’Brien said.
To the Olympics
Six weeks later, his name was one of 24 announced to China's roster, 11 of them Canadians including former Coquitlam Express player Brandon Yip, Red Star’s captain.
Still, O’Brien said, the reality of his journey didn’t hit home until he walked into the Bird’s Nest stadium on Feb. 4 for the opening ceremonies.
“You really got the Olympic feeling hearing the roar from the crowd when they called China,” he said. “I got goosebumps and chills down my back.”
Nine days later, O’Brien’s excitement leaped another notch when he skated onto the ice at the National Indoor Stadium to face Canada. It was his first start in the tournament, after China had lost two earlier games, 8-0 to the United States and 3-2 to Germany.
O’Brien admits he was a bit relieved he wouldn’t have to play against NHL stars like Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby after the league and its players decided not to participate because of COVID-19 concerns and the practicalities of making up dozens of games that had been called off in late December and early January as the Omicron variant of the virus swept across North America. But, he added, part of him would have relished the challenge.
“It would have been super fun,” O’Brien said, adding it was still a thrill to line up against a player he’d watched while growing up, Eric Staal, and stars-in-the-making like Owen Power and Port Moody’s Kent Johnson.
Despite butterflies during warmup and the game’s opening moments, O’Brien said he started to get calm and focused, quieting all the noise around him. He played his game, patient and reserved.
China lost, 5-0. O’Brien made 39 saves, some of them drawing admiration from the play-by-play commentators on Canadian television.
Two nights later he was in the net against Canada again, taking over from starter Jeremy Smith after he was injured at the end of the first period.
China’s 7-2 loss eliminated them from the tournament, but O’Brien — who allowed five of the goals — said the team exceeded expectations.
‘Something to prove’
“A lot of people underestimated us,” he said. “We had something to prove, to show the world we can play.”
More importantly China's participation in the Games pronounced hockey's arrival in the country.
"We really opened eyes to the game," O'Brien said.
With Kunlun Red Star out of the KHL playoffs that have already started, O'Brien is back in Coquitlam for about a month, visiting family, catching up with friends. He'll then return to Beijing to prepare for the IIHF World Championships for second division teams that's scheduled to be played April 24-30 in Zagreb, Croatia. China will compete in the A Group, against the Netherlands, Israel, Spain and the host country.
O'Brien said he's been offered a contract extension to stay with Kunlun, but with his confidence buoyed by his Olympic experience he's keeping all his options open.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” he said. "I can achieve anything I put my mind to.”