CHICAGO -- The NHL's return to China this week is the next step in an evolving process to establish a hockey culture in the world's most populated country.
"The way I view it is we're three years into a strategy to build a hockey infrastructure in China," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.
The Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames depart Tuesday for Shenzhen to participate in the 2018 O.R.G. NHL China Games. The Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks became the first two NHL teams to play games in China during the preseason last year.
Boston and Calgary will play at Universiade Sports Center in Shenzhen on Saturday before traveling to Beijing to play at Cadillac Arena on Sept. 19. The teams will depart for North America immediately following the game in Beijing.
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The Stanley Cup will also be in China this week for the first time and will be on display at various events, including at the Great Wall of China and at Hockey Day in Beijing on Sunday, at various locations in Hong Kong on Wednesday and at NHL Fan Fest in Shenzhen on Thursday.
The NHL's China strategy began in earnest three years ago, when a delegation of League employees and NHL alumni traveled to the country, populated by 1.3 billion people, to begin working with local schools and the government to provide the tools necessary to learn the game.
"For us to make hockey relevant in China it's more of a two-pronged approach," Daly said. "It's a lot different from European markets, where hockey is developed. I think we have to be committed to grassroots youth hockey. We have to work with other parties who are willing to work on that, whether it be the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation), whether it be the KHL (Russia's Kontinental Hockey League), anybody who is interested in building grassroots hockey. But we also think there is some value to bringing the world's greatest players, the world's greatest teams there so they can see hockey at its highest level. It's important to expose our players, our teams in person. The Kings and Canucks laid some groundwork. We want to continue that going forward if not on a year to year basis certainly on a frequent basis."
Video: NHL returns to Shanghai, Beijing for 2018 China Games
The NHL's China strategy is to both target business opportunities that will grow the League's brand globally and to grow help the game at the request of the Chinese government, which is investing in winter sports development in advance of the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
The League has contractually agreed to host preseason games in China in six of the next eight years. It has also agreed to develop learn-to-play programs and to provide the necessary equipment, including sticks and balls for ball hockey programs.
Daly said the NHL is planning to bring a group of coaches to China to teach people interested in coaching the sport.
Former Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean will be part of the group traveling to China this week to participate in various events surrounding the China Games, including an all-day coaching clinic to be held at Universiade Sports Center on Friday.
Daly said it's also likely the NHL will establish a satellite office in China within the next two years.
"If we continue to grow this I don't think we can avoid the fact that ultimately we're going to have to have employees on the ground in China," he said. "I don't know if that's this year, if it's next year, if it's two years. If we're continuing to grow, we need a permanent presence there."
NHL teams are also recognizing the benefits of growing the game in China, both for the sport itself and for the League. Daly said several teams have reached out to express interest or ask if they can be part of future China Games.
"In some respects, it's asking a lot of the clubs to essentially give up half of their training camp, bring their best players halfway around the world to play two games, but there are clubs who have a big picture vision of what it could mean for the sport globally, what it could mean for our business globally, and are willing to do that," Daly said. "We have heard from a number of clubs. All the clubs who have agreed to go to this point were among the ones who requested the opportunity to go or to be considered to go, and there are more on that list."
Daly said the response last year from the Canucks and Kings was positive.
"It's a grind and we recognize that so we certainly appreciate the fact that they were willing to do it," Daly said. "At the end of the day, I don't think it had an impact competitively on either team and I don't think they would tell you it did either. I think they enjoyed the experience."
The NHL also is implementing some of the lessons it learned last year about how to make the trip easier on the traveling parties, especially the players.
The Canucks and Kings had one day in between games in Shanghai and Beijing and had limited time to do sightseeing. The Bruins and Flames will have three days in between games in Shenzhen and Beijing.
The Bruins will travel to Beijing immediately after playing in Shenzhen and have an optional trip to the Great Wall of China planned for Sunday.
The Flames will stay an extra night in Shenzhen to practice there Sunday before departing for Beijing. They have an optional trip to the Great Wall scheduled for Monday.
"It's a working process, but we're really pleased with the progress we've made in the three years," Daly said.