Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, center left, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, center right, drop the puck for a face-off in a friendly game amongst youth hockey players in Montreal. Sparked by China’s interest in learning and improving at hockey, the NHL is making the country of almost 1.4 billion people a top priority internationally. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

NHL looks at China as a ‘very long-term relationship’

China wants to get its hockey program up to par before hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The NHL is using that as a starting point for a long-term vision to turn the country into a hockey nation.

The league is making the country of almost 1.4 billion people a top priority internationally. The Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks will play exhibition games in Shanghai and Beijing in September, and the games and the Olympics are only the beginning of what the NHL hopes is a bigger investment.

“The way we’re looking at it is it’s really not about 2022. It’s about 2032 and ‘42 and so on and really building the game,” NHL executive vice-president of media and international strategy David Proper said by phone from Beijing. “It’s doing a disservice ultimately to the building of hockey in China to just target a five-year range and not be looking past that.”

At a news conference announcing the exhibition games, commissioner Gary Bettman called them “the beginning of what we believe will be a very long-term relationship.”

The upcoming Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next year has created conflict for the league, which has expressed reluctance to stop its season to play 13 hours ahead of Eastern Time in a place that isn’t necessarily a hockey market. The NHL may yet decide to go to Korea because of players’ interest but also in part because of the lure of Beijing.

The NHL looks at the NBA, which has had a foothold in China for decades, as a blueprint for the future. But before there’s a hockey version of Yao Ming, Chinese fans need to learn more about the sport.

Andong Song, the first Chinese player drafted by an NHL team, said most people in his homeland didn’t know much about hockey even when the New York Islanders took him in the sixth round in June of 2015. Song was part of China’s presentation to the International Olympic Committee alongside Yao and said getting the Games in 2022 got people buzzing about hockey and other winter sports.

From the initial meetings with Chinese government officials, the league and NHL Players’ Association saw untapped potential.

“The exciting thing is you’re starting from a baseline of zero, so any effect that we have is going to be a positive effect,” NHL chief revenue officer and executive VP of global partnerships Keith Wachtel said by phone from Beijing. “The question is just how much, and that’s going to be about the dedication of resources that we have.”

While the exact financial investment the league is making in China was not revealed, it’s substantial.

Proper said the league will put on at least 15 clinics in China this year in addition to what teams might also be doing. The Canucks, Kings, Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals have already conducted camps for young Chinese players.

As China aims for 2022, Proper considers it a “perfect storm” of a motivated government and private sector combined with a league that wants to spread out far beyond North America and Europe.

“When somebody comes to you and says, ‘We are committed to 300 million people playing winter sports and hockey is one of the primary winter sports we want to focus on,’ you have to make that country a priority and you really have to kind of figure out how to help them as best they can to achieve their goals,” Proper said.

The NHL is getting a lift from goaltender-turned-billionaire Zhou Yunjie, chairman of metal can manufacturing company ORG Packaging, in making strides in China. The league signed a multiyear deal with ORG Packaging and will use some of that money to help refine Chinese hockey infrastructure while trying to increase exposure, sell jerseys and make an impact.

The ultimate goal is talent development, which will spawn fandom and interest if a Chinese player turns into an NHL star.

“We think that it’s only a matter of time till we’re able to get a Chinese national into the NHL,” Wachtel said. “That will be the proof point when millions of kids are playing the sport in China and one day that you see one of those kids that was in a clinic that was run by the NHL and ORG and all our other partners that that kid is playing in the NHL.”

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