SHANGHAI -- Hu Hong was not a hockey fan. Then last year he went to see the Kunlun Red Star, the first Kontinental Hockey League team in China, and became interested. Then this year he went to see the Stanley Cup Final between the Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins.
He was blown away. Not only did thousands pack inside arenas in Nashville and Pittsburgh, thousands watched outside on big screens too.
"It was amazing," Hong said. "I didn't expect so many people would watch hockey. In China, nobody knows about hockey."
Hong hopes that will change if people have the kind of experience he did. He is the project director of the 2017 NHL China Games presented by O.R.G. Packaging between the LA Kings and Vancouver Canucks. Though these are two preseason games, they are the first NHL games in China, and he wants them to feel like the Final.
He and his colleagues at Bloomage International, the Chinese promoters of this event, have taken ideas from the Final, mixed them with their own and applied them to the game at Mercedes-Benz Arena here on Thursday (7:30 a.m. ET; NBCSN) and the one at Wukesong Arena in Beijing on Saturday (3:30 a.m. ET; NHL Network).
They will project video onto the ice surface -- footage of the Kings and Canucks with Chinese design elements -- and set it to pump-up music. They will have rally towels on each seat. They will have cheerleaders. They won't have a T-shirt toss, because people scrambling for T-shirts doesn't fit Chinese culture. So they will have a T-shirt handout instead.
The pregame show in Shanghai will have a traditional Chinese flavor: a Chinese dragon, a Chinese school choir singing the Chinese national anthem, a formal pregame ceremony in which a player from each team will address the crowd. A Chinese official will drop the puck with the team presidents: Luc Robitaille of the Kings and Trevor Linden of the Canucks.
The game in Beijing will have a Nashville influence. Inspired by the live bands at Bridgestone Arena, organizers will have a live band that blends traditional Chinese music with pop rock. It will play during timeouts and between periods.
The Kings and Canucks need to play a good game. This is the preseason, not the regular season, let alone the Stanley Cup Playoffs, let alone the Final. It can be sloppy, especially by the standards of hockey connoisseurs. But it can still be fast, it can still be exciting, especially for people who have never seen anything like it.
"I've always believed that hockey is a game that you need to see live, and once you see it live, you become hooked as a fan," Kings coach John Stevens said. "And then you'll watch it live, you'll watch it on TV. I think when you get people to a game and they see the speed of the game and they see the skill of the players, they see the physicality, I think it's the greatest game in the world."
The League, the promoters and the arena need to get people talking.
"I think it's going to be a show, and it needs to be a show," said Jim Foss, the general manager of Mercedes-Benz Arena, an American who once ran Gila River Arena, home of the Arizona Coyotes. "We're introducing a new product to a country that knows very little about this product. Really, it's a first impression.
"You've got to make it an event, and I think what the fans will see [Thursday] is an event -- an event within an event. And then when they go home and they go on WeChat and social media, they're posting. Don't underestimate the social media in China. WeChat is massive. I mean, everyone, if you look around, is on their phones WeChatting.
"We're going to have a show, and then that message will be pushed out. That's probably the most exciting thing. We'll let the fans be our PR marketing."
With 1.3 billion people in China and more than 34 million in the Shanghai area alone, potentially there are millions who could be like Hong.
"I want to see the passion and see people when they watch hockey and they like it," Hong said. "That's the best thing I want to see, because for 2022 we're going to have the Beijing Olympic Games. The government said we need 300 million people on the ice or on the snow, and this is how it's going to happen."