TEMPE – Not even a decade into its NCAA Division I history, the Arizona State hockey program has produced its first Olympian, Peter Zhong, who at first glance is as unlikely a success story as big-time college hockey in the desert.
Zhong, a redshirt junior forward, will play for China, which received an automatic berth in the Olympic field as the host country. China’s first game is Thursday against Team USA in a Group A preliminary round. The other teams in the group are Canada and Germany.
“I came all this way through ASU and now I finally have a ticket home to participate in the Winter Olympics, representing my country,” Zhong said in a recent video conference with reporters. “When it all came together, it was just crazy and there were a lot of emotions.”
The 23-year-old Zhong was born in China, which has historically not been known for its immersion in winter sports. He moved to the United States at age seven to pursue improved hockey resources in the United States after a trip to Canada opened his and his family’s eyes to the opportunities available.
“The goal of coming to America was for better education and hockey,” Zhong said. “Obviously, in North America there is some of the best hockey in the world. Being (in America) and playing hockey the right way, a lot of that, they don’t necessarily have the resources for in China. So, coming (to America) has really developed my skills and hockey sense.”
Zhong, who grew up in suburban Chicago, progressed through the U.S. hockey ranks and spent two years in the North American Hockey League, with Pennsylvania-based teams, before he arrived at ASU in 2018.
While he was being recruited by the Sun Devils, Zhong said he made it clear that becoming an Olympian in 2022 was a priority. It had been his overriding ambition since the International Olympic Committee in 2015 selected Beijing to host the Winter Games.
After he received an invitation for a tryout with the Chinese team, Zhong suspected his childhood goal was about to become real. To realize his dream and make ASU history, too, validated his unconventional path.
“It’s incredible,” ASU coach Greg Powers said after a practice recently. “We are so happy for Peter. That has been his goal from day one when he came here, to develop, train and have a chance to make that team through his experience here. He has been a big asset to our program.”
As a Sun Devil, Zhong has appeared in 15 games across two seasons after redshirting during the 2018-19 season. His ASU teammates have excitedly followed his progress with the Chinese team, where he is listed on the roster as Wei Zhong. Some even plan to purchase his jersey to wear while watching him compete on the world stage.
Zhong described the support as “amazing” and said, “I haven’t seen the guys all year. I’ve been following along (with ASU’s season). I just miss all of the boys so much. It has been great that they have been following along every step of the way. It has helped a lot.”
Freshman forward Josh Doan, a second-round draft pick of the Arizona Coyotes, described Zhong’s participation in the Olympics as a huge inflection point for the program. Doan’s father, Shane, represented Canada at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, and is the general manager of Team Canada for the 2022 Olympics.
“It just speaks to how far this program has come, to have an Olympian,” Doan said after a recently practice. “For it to be Zhong, a guy that everyone loves and probably the guy that we’d argue is the best teammate around, to see his work paying off here in the end is unbelievable. He was a guy, when we all got here, you looked up to how hard he worked.”
The team that Zhong left behind will experience the Olympics vicariously through following Zhong’s progress with China in the tournament.
“It has been a great experience for all of us to have him a part of this,” Powers said. “He is all part of our mantra ‘Be the Tradition’. He is our first Olympian and he will go down in our record books as that.”