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China Games

Bruins, Flames thrill fans in China Games opener

Growth of sport in country continues with Boston shootout victory

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

SHENZHEN, China -- The teenager stood, half his body suspended over the railing. He waved his arm, over and over, calling for attention.

"Brad Marchand!" he yelled. "Brad Marchand!"

In front of him, the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames had just taken the ice for warmups at Universiade Sports Center in Shenzhen, China, their usual routine transformed for their first preseason game of the 2018-19 season. Instead of an arena in North America, the Bruins and Flames were halfway around the world, 30 minutes away from the start of the first game of the 2018 O.R.G. NHL China Games, which the Bruins would win 4-3 in a shootout.

 

[RELATED: Bruins defeat Flames in shootout at China Games | China Games coverage]

 

The kid wore a Bruins jersey with a No. 15, Milt Schmidt's retired number. Next to him stood a man in a newly minted John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs sweater, and nearby a neon P.K. Subban Nashville Predators edition. A Grant Fuhr Edmonton Oilers jersey could be seen a few sections over, and the concourse revealed Daniel Alfredsson and Ken Dryden and Milan Lucic and Joffrey Lupul.

These were the people who already knew, and loved, the game.

But there were others, the ones with no history and no allegiances, with no sense of hockey's past, that the NHL wants to be part of its future. For them, there came an announcement after the two teams left the ice: They would be explaining the rules of hockey to the assembled crowd.

Video: BOS@CGY: Lanny McDonald drops the first puck

Rapid-fire Mandarin ensued, bursts occasionally interrupted by the English words for offside and icing and penalties, as black-clad skaters demonstrated what not to do. When they got to cross-checking, the mascots got in on the fun, with Bruins mascot Blades tripping Flames mascot Harvey. Harvey, though, got his revenge, with a high elbow to Blades' chin.

"Let's check out what boarding is," the announcer in the Bruins jersey said, and the mascots obliged there as well.

This is hockey in China.

It is teaching and educating, massaging the game into the consciousness of a people not raised on the sport. It is coaching clinics and player clinics and preseason games that serve as an introduction to an untapped market of nearly 1.4 billion people, one prized by any of the leagues in North America, including the NHL.

It is slow going. But the NHL is prepared for that.

"You don't introduce a new sport to a country overnight," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said before the game. "You have to do it over the long term and that's what we're committed to. But based on all the feedback we've gotten and the meetings I've had over the last two days with our partners, they're thrilled with what they're seeing."

So were those in the stands.

There were oohs and aahs at the start, for a light show that would look at home at any NHL arena, especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. There was plenty of red, a color considered lucky in China, with fireballs of light blasting from center ice to the far reaches of the rink.

"If you saw the games last year, we spent a pretty good mix of trying to give them what a real NHL game looks like, but also having a Chinese historical bent to it," said David Proper, NHL executive vice president of media and international strategy. "The kids really were engaged by the NHL event. The music, the light shows and all that. I think at the end of the day it's all the same.

"I think that the same kids that get on the ice and love playing [are] just like the kids in North America. The same kids that are watching it from the stands and like the light show and [like to] watch the guys skate and the speed of the game and so forth. We didn't change that much presentation other than adding the Chinese element to it."

Some of that was gleaned from last preseason, when the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks came to China for the first NHL games in the country. That served as a learning experience. They know more this year and will know more every year they return.

Because the idea is to get better at this, at all this. The NHL is committed to coming to China in four of the next six years. The League is expecting to open an office in China in the near future, perhaps by next summer. It will grow infrastructure and opportunities and the game's footprint.

"Any time you're doing business outside of North America, you've got to figure out how you're going to have a presence there and I think having an office, particularly when it's 8,000 miles away and 12 time zones, you've got to figure out how to be on the ground," Proper said.

"Ideally the next six months is when we would try to get that done, at least open something."

Video: BOS@CGY: Jike Junyi sings 'March of the Volunteers'

They will find a fanbase in China and, someday, they will find their own Yao Ming, the NBA star who helped basketball explode in the country. As Commissioner Bettman said, "I don't think it's a question of if, it's more a question of when."

The game is still nascent in China, as evidenced Saturday in Shenzhen, and as will be in evidence Wednesday for their game in Beijing (7:30 a.m. ET; NBCSN, SN). It is growing, though, one player at a time, one fan at a time, one game at a time.

"We're not like the NBA where they came in and they had 100 years of history," Proper said. "We're trying to grow the sport."

It grew Saturday, as the game went on and the scoring started, as goals poured in from Bruins Trent Frederic and Ryan Donato and John Moore, all in the first period, as the players settled in and the action increased, as the Flames answered and the crowd cheered. As Jake DeBrusk scored the winner in the shootout.

This was what they had come to see. This was what the NHL had come to show them.

Video: BOS@CGY: DeBrusk tallies the shootout winner

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