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His great-grandparents found refuge in China. Now this Canadian Jew is starting for its hockey team.

Most of Ethan Werek’s teammates on the Chinese Olympic hockey team had never met a Jewish person before he joined the roster.

But Werek’s family tree was once planted in Chinese soil.

Like the six athletes suiting up for Israel in this year’s games, Werek didn’t need to be born in the country on his jersey to play for its national team. Yet his right-of-return story is no less Jewish than theirs — and it predates the Jewish state. How this Canadian came to play for the Chinese national team is a Jewish homecoming more than a century in the making.

During World War I, Werek’s great grandparents, Nehemia and Luba Werek, fled Eastern Russia to Harbin, a city in Northeast China where a community of several thousand Jews found safety and better economic opportunities. Werek’s grandparents grew up in China; two aunts were born in Shanghai. In 1948, the family immigrated to Israel, where Ethan’s father was born. The Wereks immigrated to Canada in the 1950s.

In a way, playing for the hockey team is Werek returning the assist China gave his ancestors.

As the 2022 host country, China automatically qualified for Olympic hockey, but because it had a weak national program, it needed to naturalize professional players with connections to the nation. Enter Werek, a journeyman forward drafted by the New York Rangers in 2009 who has since played in various pro leagues.

“I kind of pinch myself every morning,” he said in a phone interview from the Olympic village in Beijing. “I just feel so lucky to be given this opportunity.”

Werek Kunlun Red Star

Werek playing for HC Kunlun Red Star, the KHL team based in Beijing. Courtesy of Ethan Werek

There was also a career benefit to Chinese citizenship: it made it easier for him to play in the KHL, the top hockey league outside of North America which has a franchise in Beijing. He’s played on that team since 2019. During hockey season in China, Werek has taken the time to visit the synagogue his grandparents used to attend. Their names are still engraved in the building.

An only child, Werek grew up in a household that celebrated Jewish holidays, though his fondest memories formed at the table of an aunt who cooked “a disgusting amount of food” for seders.

A rising hockey star at 17, he moved to play junior hockey in Kingston, Ontario, where he boarded with a Jewish family. With games most Friday nights, his hosts would prepare an early Shabbat dinner so that he could fill up on challah before heading to the rink. (He still talks to them every week.)

Werek has visited Israel every few years dating back to when he was a kid — he has Israeli citizenship through his dad, and he briefly played for the country’s Under-18 team — but the pandemic has prevented those trips. He’s been pining a bit, but recently got to play Jewish geography with Israeli speed skater Vladislav Bykanov in the Olympic village. Werek discovered that Bykanov got his start at the public rink in Metula, a town of about 1,600 just south of the Lebanese border.

“I was like, oh my God, I’ve been there before, I’ve played there before,” Werek recalled, “and just that connection over time — the water slides outside the rink and everything — it was just so cool.”

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Perhaps owing to a dearth of ponds that freeze over in the winter, Israel’s hockey program makes China’s look like Russia’s. So Werek has volunteered to contribute to establishing the sport more firmly there this summer. He’s going to live in Tel Aviv and help out with the Israel Elite Hockey League, a one-month semi-pro league, by running hockey camps at the two rinks in the Tel Aviv area — with part of the goal to make equipment more accessible to kids.

“Anything I can do to grow the game there,” he said.

In the meantime, he’s an Olympian. The Chinese team will be an experiment in communication — half of its 24 players speak only Mandarin and the other half (plus the head coach) speak only English. While the team has a pair of translators on staff, it won’t have one in skates.

Werek, who was assigned a Chinese name, Wei Ruike, for fans to use, can barely pronounce it.

“I’ve gotten pretty good at charades and hand gestures,” he said.

werek china hockey

Werek, far left, with teammates in the Olympic village. Courtesy of Ethan Werek

He has learned how to say “Happy New Year” in Mandarin, though.

And he’s not put off by the fact that Judaism is alien to most of his teammates. He’s used to it.

Back in Ontario, Canada, while playing junior hockey, Werek befriended a teammate from a small town and invited him to his Jewish host family’s house during Hanukkah, not long after they had lit the menorah.

“He looked at the table,” Werek recalled. “He goes, ‘Oh, candles — fancy dinner!”

Werek’s Chinese teammates have not benefited from the sort of training and opportunities afforded talented Canadians. They have never sniffed international competition, and even without active NHL players in this year’s Olympics, China is a steep underdog. But Werek says in spite of the language barrier, he’s bonded with the team, and enjoyed teaching them the finer points of the game. His enthusiasm has sparked his own.

“I guess in hockey at the age of 30, I’m kind of the older age,” he said. “But I feel I got a shot of youth just being around these guys and seeing their passion for it.”

How to watch team China men’s hockey this week:

China vs. U.S.A.: Feb. 10, 8-10:30 a.m. on USA

China vs. Germany: Feb. 12, 3:40am on Peacock

China vs. Canada: Feb. 13, 8:10 a.m. on Peacock

Special thanks to the Jewish Sports Review.

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