When the Boston Bruins first approached David Pastrnak about heading to China with the team in the summer of 2016, he could not have imagined that, two years later, he would be making his third visit in three years to the country.
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He couldn't have anticipated much of this, really. Not the endorsement deal he would personally sign with O.R.G Packaging, the repeat trips, the thought of playing actual NHL exhibition games in China as part of the 2018 O.R.G. NHL China Games. None of it.
"To play hockey, to be honest, I could not imagine that I will be playing there in a couple years, but here we go," Pastrnak said, a few days before the Bruins and the Calgary Flames took off for China, with games scheduled for Shenzhen, China on Sept. 15 (2:30 a.m. ET; SN) and Beijing on Sept. 19 (7:30 a.m. ET; NBCSN, SN).
He also couldn't imagine being featured on cans of milk in China.
But that, too, happened.
"The first year we actually opened up this Pasta-milk and we had the big opening night or whatever you call it, this really sweet milk for the kids in China," Pastrnak said. "With my own picture."
Pastrnak signed a personal endorsement deal with O.R.G. Packaging to promote Want Want Milk, which requires him to come to China once each summer for four more years after 2018. The company also has deals with the Bruins and the NHL. But while the right wing, 22, isn't quite sure how the deal came about, he believes that his uniform number - No. 88 - might have played into it.
"Mr. Zhou [Yunjie] from O.R.G. Packaging was at our game," Pastrnak said of the company's CEO. "Maybe I had a good night and played well. For some reason he started liking me and liked my number. Obviously, it's lucky -- eight is a lucky number in China. … I'm glad. It's a new experience and I was very excited to go to China and just get a taste of other country and other people."
And more than that, bring hockey to them.
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In the two previous trips Pastrnak has taken with the Bruins to China, he's helped conduct clinics and worked with kids on their skills on the ice.
As Matt Beleskey, who went on the team's first trip, recalled in a 2016 piece for The Players' Tribune, "Pasta is just a big kid, and the young players we worked with loved him. He'd skate circles around them, his smile almost as big as the ones on the kids. He'd toe-drag, then rip one off the crossbar and in. You'd hear the kids go 'Ooh … whoa.' He'd wheel off and the kids would all line up and try their best to emulate him."
It was fun for him, to show them what he's spent his lifetime learning. It was fun, too, to see that some of the kids had been playing hockey for a while and demonstrated some skill, though there were others who were skating for the first time.
"I tried when I'm there, I try to have the much fun with them as we did because they must like it, they must enjoy every time they are on the ice," Pastrnak said. "It's not about the hard work at their age, it's about learn to skate and learn how to control the puck, but they have to enjoy it. Because when you don't enjoy something like that, you won't come happy to the rink and when you are not happy you won't do it for 100 percent."
And that's what he wants, ultimately, for the kids to find the same kind of joy at the rink and on the ice as he always has. That's what Pastrnak is about, after all, having fun on the ice -- playing with a smile that could light up an arena.
"Trying to give the experience I got by playing [in the NHL] for the last couple years, trying to give it to the kids," Pastrnak said. "A lot of fun, a lot of practicing, and I had some fun with the kids. They are very nice and friendly, although the language barrier is there sometimes, it was still fun."
Pastrnak hopes that his teammates will see what he's seen in his two previous trips to China, that they will feel as welcomed as he has. He never expected to be in this position, a veteran in the country, bringing the rest of the Bruins along with him on a third tour in three years.
But now that he's here, he's vowing to give them a vision of a country he's grown to enjoy. And to give the Chinese people a little vision of his life in Boston, his life in the NHL.
"I really hope the people will enjoy our stay and appreciate that we are coming," he said. "So we can give them a little taste of our League."