On the day NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced a historic two-game preseason series in China, his focus was not solely on one week in September but on what the future might hold.
Officially, Commissioner Bettman was in Beijing on Thursday to unveil the details of the 2017 NHL China Games presented by O.R.G. Packaging between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks. The games will be played Sept. 21 at Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai and two days later at Wukesong Arena in Beijing.
In a telephone interview, Commissioner Bettman spoke about the broader implications of the groundbreaking venture and the NHL's long-range vision for exploring the Chinese market.
"I knew when we came over, based on all the reports I was getting, that there was a great deal of interest in the game," Commissioner Bettman said. "But the level of that interest is so high it's surprised me, and it is particularly exciting because this is a great opportunity to grow the game of hockey.
"This is a long-term commitment in a large country to develop our game. We're barely in the embryonic stages, but the opportunity and the possibilities are limitless."
Video: NHL, China partner to bring NHL games to Beijing
Long-term, one of those possibilities is to help China develop a league of its own.
"They need to develop more native talent but we can be of assistance in helping them develop their own league," Commissioner Bettman said. "We can help them do that, both in terms of developing their own players and in lending our assistance in setting up an infrastructure for the league."
But why China and why now? According to Commissioner Bettman: "A confluence of things that just came together. We did the World Cup to relaunch our international efforts and that served as a foundation.
"At the same time, the Chinese government had identified winter sports, especially hockey, as a priority. They want 300 million people playing winter sports. We decided, because of the partnerships we have with O.R.G Packaging and Bloomage, that we could bring some teams and start the efforts to bring events here. We'll have clinics and educational events and conferences to get more and more young players developing as hockey players."
As part of the announcement in Beijing, there were brief video welcomes from former Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant, soccer icon David Beckham, formerly of the Los Angeles Galaxy, and Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, the reigning Norris Trophy winner. Doughty is a two-time Olympic gold medalist with Canada.
Video: Gary Bettman on the NHL preseason games in China
Trevor Linden, the Canucks president of hockey operations, described the process as an important first step, a glimpse of things to come in China. Linden and Luc Robitaille, the Kings president of business operations, were with Commissioner Bettman in Beijing for the announcement.
"We had a great meeting with the Beijing Hockey Association [Wednesday], understanding from them what their plans are," Linden said. "There's a huge push in this country to create a winter-sport culture. A big part of that will be the hockey side of things.
"They've got some really aggressive plans to integrate ice hockey programs into their school programs and from an infrastructure standpoint, building an infrastructure, getting kids playing."
Developing a broader hockey culture cannot happen overnight, Linden said.
"It's not going to translate necessarily from a hockey standpoint in 2022, but where does this country get to in 2026, 2030?" Linden said. "They're really at the beginning, but knowing what this country has accomplished in such a short time, they've got a great opportunity in front of them. It's exciting to be a part of it."
Video: Bettman, Chinese hockey reps finalize NHL China games
Mathieu Schneider, special assistant to the executive director of the NHLPA Donald Fehr, gave the assembled gathering at the news conference in Beijing a hint of what NHL hockey and its player-ambassadors will bring in September.
"It is well known among the media that NHL players are some of the most personable and relatable athletes to cover amongst the major sports in North America," Schneider said. "We are confident that all of you here today will enjoy covering the games and will certainly share the same opinion of the players as the hockey media do.
"There isn't a sport on earth that is as fast-paced and exciting as NHL hockey. Hockey players are asked to do everything athletes in other sports do, except they do it on two thin pieces of steel.
"The level of skill in today's NHL is unprecedented."