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Learning from the NHL in Japan

Along with the commitment to playing at least six times over eight years in China, the NHL has planned grassroots activities, from youth clinics to watch parties

by Sheng Peng @Sheng_Peng / LAKings.com

This week isn't the first time that the NHL has made a powerful push into an Asian market.

Twenty years ago, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Vancouver Canucks faced off in the first-ever regular season games in Japan. These historic matches in Tokyo were followed by NHL participation at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics and contests in Greater Tokyo to kick off the 1998-99 and 2000-01 regular seasons.

However, as both Japanese fans and NHL teams lost interest in these games, the league has not enjoyed a significant presence in Japan since 2000.

Two decades later, what should they have learned from their foray into Japan, as they prepare for China's first-ever NHL action and the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics?

Today in Tokyo, memories of the NHL in Japan are few and far between. But Shoichi Tomita, Team Japan goalie at the 1960 Winter Games and IIHF Vice President from 1994 to 2012, remembered.

"We didn't have a real hockey facility in Tokyo.

"The ice machine wasn't strong enough at Yoyogi National Gymnasium [where 1997 and 1998 NHL games were held]. Figure skating doesn't need as strong ice."

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LA Kings assistant coach Dave Lowry, who skated for the San Jose Sharks in October 1998 when they took on the Calgary Flames at Yoyogi, chuckled, "The rink used to be a pool."

So, in October 2000, the league chose Saitama Super Arena, which boasts a maximum capacity of 36,500, to host the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators.

"That was a mistake," confessed Tomita. "The basement wasn't big enough for hockey. So, we raised the ground floor with support. But it wasn't easy to put the Zamboni out.

"Saitama Arena wasn't built for ice hockey, it was built for basketball. It wasn't a great hockey atmosphere."

In China, the Kings and Canucks shouldn't face such obstacles. Both the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai and Wukesong Arena in Beijing, where the exhibition games are taking place, are world-class, hockey-friendly facilities.

Perhaps more importantly, the NHL's efforts at growing the sport in Japan beyond these special games and Nagano were limited.

David Proper, current NHL EVP of Media & International Strategy, conceded, "We dropped in, played the games, and left."

Canucks President of Hockey Operations Trevor Linden, who suited up for the 1997 tilts against the Mighty Ducks, noted, "Just showing up and playing the world's fastest game … it's got to be more than that."

On this end, the league also seems to be have learned its lesson.

"Our ownership believes we need to be doing things more than just playing games [in China]," said Proper. "If we had to do it over in Japan, there would have been more of that around the game as opposed to just coming in and playing the games."

Along with their commitment to playing at least six times over the next eight years in China, the NHL has promised a wide range of grassroots activities in China, from youth clinics to watch parties.

"The mistake was to not go back," asserted Kings President Luc Robitaille, "I think what's very important here is we're coming now and the NHL needs to keep coming back.

"For us, the LA Kings, it's two years that we've been coming [to do clinics]. We're going to keep coming and bringing our guys and help teach the game of hockey. We need continuity."

Video: The Kings host youth clinic, sign autographs in China

From the league's perspective, Proper concurred, "This is not an eight-year plan. This is a 20, 30-year plan."

Blessed with first-class facilities and a commitment to developing Chinese hockey, is the NHL destined for fortune in the Middle Kingdom?

"Last six, seven years, nothing special has happened with the Japanese men's ice hockey program [because of in-fighting within the Japanese Ice Hockey Federation]," cautioned Tomita.

Leadership questions also plague the sport's governing body in China.

"Chinese winter sports bureaus are always thinking about figure skating and speed skating because they can participate in the Olympics [in these sports]," observed Tomita. "The president of the [Chinese Ice Hockey Association Wang Yitao] is also the president of the skating association. Hockey is always second or third.

"They need a strong, focused national hockey federation. A specialist for ice hockey activities, administration. Then we can discuss future growth."

So, who's in charge of hockey in China? Now that's a mystery.

Tomita revealed, "KHL people asked me as recently as last May, 'Every time they send different representatives. Who's the right person to speak to about hockey in China?' "

"I wouldn't characterize it as an issue yet," said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly about the lack of a unified Chinese hockey leadership. "Obviously as time goes on, you would hope that coalesces and establishes. I think it can and will."

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