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NHL plans to help growth of sport in China

Will build hockey infrastructure, boost participation, return for preseason games

by Tracey Myers @TraMyers_NHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

AUSTIN, Texas -- Jessica Guo was nervous prior to the Los Angeles Kings-Vancouver Canucks game in Shanghai last September, the first NHL game in China. Guo, the general manager for Bloomage International Investment Group, wondered if fans would be enthusiastic.

"In the China market, the people are normally very quiet when they watch games. It's not like in Western countries," Guo said. "But the game really encouraged me a lot. Everybody was responding to the game, what was going on, and cheering. It was very good."

The foray across the Pacific with the 2017 China Games presented by O.R.G. Packaging was a success. The NHL, which also played a game in Beijing, wants to grow the game in the world's most populous country, boost participation in winter sports overall, and help China build its national team for the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

Those were some of the points covered at the NHL Power Play in China seminar at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival on Saturday.

Unlike other countries where the NHL has played, there's no real hockey infrastructure in China. The NHL is looking to help, from reaching out on social media to supplying instruction and equipment. That includes introducing a ball hockey program in schools.

"It's a model we've seen the NBA be successful with, but for us it's critical because it'll start with a couple of hundred schools in Beijing," said David Proper, NHL executive vice president of media and international strategy. "But if it expands out, you're talking to thousands of middle schools that are getting kids introduced to the sport in a non-financially difficult way.

"China is one of the hottest markets in the world. Everyone's trying to get in in one form or another. They're not interested in us jumping in, playing a game and leaving. They want to see that we're committed to that market, that we want to help grow hockey, that we want to help grow the economy, that all the things we're doing are not so that the NHL can jump in, put some money in its pocket, and leave. That's important."

Video: 2017 NHL China Games in 60 seconds

The NHL will again send two teams to China for two preseason games this September. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the League is close to finalizing which teams will go.

"With the preseason schedules the clubs have, we're trying to balance their games in North America vs. travel to China," he said. "We're working through and we're close to being in a position where I can answer."

As for NHL participation in the 2022 Beijing Olympics, that's up in the air.

"I will say that certainly it's a possibility," Daly said. "We have a couple of years to make that decision. What I will say is I don't think it's a critical element to our being able to grow the sport in China. There are some synergies associated with that, I'm sure that'll be taken into consideration by our owners at the appropriate time, but I don't think it's an essential."

China was receptive to the NHL preseason games last September. The League hopes it's a start of hockey growth there, and Guo hopes it leads to China-born players in the League someday.

"The NHL's representing the highest level of hockey in the world. China is a huge market, but there's zero infrastructure at the moment," Guo said. "The NHL will come in and help form that infrastructure, coaching and then the standards. That's what they need.

"There are tons of kids that are enthusiastic to play ice hockey. It's sad for me to see there isn't very good coaching to help them to make sure they are safe on the ice. So I think this will be something the NHL will help and it'll be welcome in the society, for sure."

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