SHANGHAI -- The kids skated out in full uniform and lined up in the corners. Two days ago, they mobbed the Los Angeles Kings for autographs after practice and learned from some of their alumni at a hockey clinic. Now they greeted the Kings and Vancouver Canucks before the first NHL game ever played in their country.
They slapped gloves with the players as they came out, lined up on the blue lines with them for the Chinese national anthem, then took off their skates and helmets and headed up to the third level of Mercedes-Benz Arena.
Still in full uniform, waving rally towels, taking pictures with their smartphones, sitting on the edges of their seats, they watched the Kings' 5-2 preseason win Thursday in the 2017 NHL China Games presented by O.R.G. Packaging. Until now, they had never seen an NHL game live, never experienced the skill, the speed, the size.
[RELATED: Kings defeat Canucks | China Games blog: Michael Del Zotto]
"They skate one step," said Marco Huo, 8, "and for me, I have to skate five steps."
This was a first step for the NHL.
China is the most populated country in the world, home to 1.3 billion people. Shanghai is one of the most populated cities in the world, home to 34 million people in the metro area. So is Beijing, home to 20 million people in the metro area, where the Kings and Canucks will play at Wukesong Arena on Saturday (3:30 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV).
Video: VAN@LAK: Ceremonial puck drop in Shanghai
There is enormous potential here, especially with the Chinese government encouraging 300 million people to participate in winter sports leading up to the 2022 Beijing Olympics and asking the NHL to help build hockey in the country. But there is also an enormous challenge here, with basketball and soccer so popular, with badminton and table tennis on television, with hockey interest still in its infancy.
"They have work to do," said Neil Hammond, a Canadian who came to the game in a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater and Kunlun Red Star scarf. Kunlun, the first Kontinental Hockey League team in China, is still developing a following.
Not only had Mercedes-Benz Arena never hosted hockey, it hadn't made ice in years and had to test the ice plant to make sure it worked when the NHL considered playing here. It had to borrow a Zamboni from a local rink. Yet it put on an NHL-level production to promote the sport.
The NHL decorated the building with logos as it would any other special event. The Kings sent their organist, Dieter Ruehle. The lights went down before the game, and projectors lit up the ice with images of the Kings and Canucks set to electronic pump-up music, as if this were the Stanley Cup Playoffs, along with images of Shanghai.
The crowd of 10,088 included a number of expats and jerseys from across the NHL: Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Winnipeg Jets …
But it also included Chinese fans who were new to the game, the people the NHL is trying to reach. There was a Hockey 101 demonstration before the game, with an emcee explaining the rules in English and Mandarin. A group of skaters demonstrated things like offside and icing. The Kings mascot, Bailey, and the Canucks mascot, Fin, demonstrated penalties like boarding and elbowing.
The crowd reacted to things a European or North American wouldn't. Killing a penalty, the Kings lobbed a puck at Canucks goaltender Jacob Markstrom. When he caught it, the crowd let out an "oooh." Every rush in the early going seemed to draw an "aaah."
Yadong Liu sat in the last row of the lower bowl in the corner with his wife, their son and their daughter. Their son, Guanxi, 11, just started playing hockey. This was their first game.
"Some young boys in China want to play some new game, not all basketball, football," Liu said. "They want some new game. He wants to play, but he doesn't see this level of game here. So I think if the game's here, he will join it, and then maybe more people will join it."
Video: Kopitar mic'd up for first NHL game in China
Asked what he thought of the game, Liu wasn't sure what to say. He didn't know what was good or not good, because he hadn't seen enough hockey to put this game into context. Then he started asking questions of his own: Was the American team better than the Canadian team? The Kings were at the moment, ahead, 3-1. Were the American and Canadian teams in different leagues? No, he was told, the NHL is one league with seven Canadian teams and 24 American teams. Who was the strongest team? Pittsburgh has won the Stanley Cup the last two seasons.
His face went blank. Asked if he knew what the Stanley Cup was, he said no. But he was here, and he wanted to learn. Told it was the NHL's trophy, that it was big and silver, that the players held it over their heads and paraded around the ice when they won it, he smiled and understood. Asked if he would come to another game, he said yes.
"I like it," he said.