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China Games could go long way in growth of NHL

Canucks, Kings set to play in markets with 34M, 24.9M people

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

Do the math, and imagine.

China is the biggest country on Earth, home to 1.3 billion people. One tenth of a percent of the population is 1.3 million, larger than a couple of NHL markets. One percent is 13 million, larger than Sweden, where the Colorado Avalanche and Ottawa Senators will play in the 2017 SAP NHL Global Series at Ericsson Globe in Stockholm on Nov. 10 and 11.

Three percent? That's 39 million, larger than Canada.

 

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The potential is incredible as the NHL makes its first foray into the country with the 2017 NHL China Games presented by O.R.G. Packaging. A tiny slice of the market would grow the game immensely.

The Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks depart Sunday for two of the biggest cities on Earth: Shanghai, home to 34 million in the metro area, and Beijing, home to 24.9 million in the metro area. Each is larger than the NHL's largest market, New York, home to 20.2 million in the metro area.

The Kings and Canucks play preseason games at Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai on Thursday (7:30 a.m. ET; NHL.TV, NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports) and Wukesong Arena in Beijing on Saturday (3:30 a.m. ET; NHL.TV, NHLN, SN, TVA Sports). They will teach hockey to kids at events and speak to the Chinese media. There will be an NHL Fan Fest in Beijing.

 

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No one knows what to expect.

"We do hope that bringing two NHL teams with the best hockey players in the world will generate certainly some attention, some excitement, some enthusiasm around the games," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. "But we also realize we're kind of painting on a totally blank canvas here."

The point is to start brushing.

"We're hoping that we can sell a good number of tickets," said David Proper, NHL executive vice president of media and international strategy. "But we also expect to put on the best event possible so that in future years it will become more of a destination event.

"We're out there trying to build something. We don't think it's built yet. And so this is an early stage of the building process."

This comes at an opportune time for the NHL and China.

The League is in a stronger position than it was when it journeyed to Japan 20 years ago. The Canucks and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim played two regular-season games in Tokyo in 1997. The Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks played two in Tokyo in 1998. The Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins played two in Saitama City in 2000.

Video: NHL, China partner to bring NHL games to Beijing

"We probably weren't at a point in our evolution in history where we were able to devote enough resources to really create any stickiness in the Japanese market with respect to hockey," Daly said. "And I think now the difference with China is that we're at a point as a league and as a business where we have an ability to devote resources to hopefully generate stickiness, get hockey on the radar screen in China."

China's economy has grown, giving more people more disposable income to spend on sports and attracting other professional sports leagues, and the Chinese government has established a plan to encourage 300 million people to participate in winter sports as part of the ramp up to the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

"Hopefully 50 (million) or 100 million of them end up playing hockey," said Luc Robitaille, president of the Kings and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. "Or even if it's 30 million, it would be a great win for us, because there will be more great hockey players in the next 10 to 15 years worldwide."

The Chinese government asked the NHL for help in growing hockey. Central to the request was that the League lend its expertise in building hockey infrastructure and a national team, and play games in the country. China has 1,101 players and 154 indoor rinks, according to IIHF.com. It has more than 4,000 players in Beijing alone, according to other sources. Either way, the numbers are tiny relative to the huge population.

The NHL already has hosted clinics in Beijing, Chongqing, Hangzhou and Shenyang; worked with the Beijing school system to add ball hockey to the physical-education curriculum; and consulted on the national team. It is working with partners to provide low-cost equipment for kids, planning watch parties for people to gather for NHL games and planning an educational social-media campaign.

It remains to be seen whether the NHL will participate in the 2022 Beijing Olympics. The League decided not to participate in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics in South Korea.

"We'll make future decisions on a case-by-case basis," Daly said. "Each Olympic decision is different."

It remains to be seen when the NHL will return to China. The League will evaluate this event before planning for the future.

But the NHL is committed to growing the game internationally, and China is a big -- potentially massive -- part of that.

"Our intentions are not to make this a one-time event," Daly said. "Our intentions are to make this a regular event, whether that be every year or certainly fairly frequently.

"This would be a first step in creating that regular presence. We'll be able to generate momentum and be able to generate enthusiasm for building that business and kind of the visibility of the NHL and hockey generally."

NHL.com staff writer Lisa Dillman contributed to this report.

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