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China Games part of long-term plan to grow hockey in untapped market

First visit by NHL teams designed to reach new fans in country of 1.3 billion people

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

BEIJING -- The boy held a hockey stick for the first time and didn't want to let it go.

His name was Shengrui Li. He was 3 years old. His parents had brought him to the NHL Fan Fest at Wukesong Arena on Saturday before the Los Angeles Kings' 4-3 shootout win against the Vancouver Canucks in the 2017 NHL China Games presented by O.R.G. Packaging.

In his little gray sweats, Li clutched the stick as a natural left-handed shot. His father held his shoulders and positioned him in front of the net. He slid the puck on goal. Someone passed it back. He slid it on goal again. When someone else stepped up, he waited for another turn.

 

[RELATED: Kings defeat Canucks in shootout in China Games finale | Complete China Games coverage]

 

"I want my baby to catch some sport," said his mother, Yang Yang. "I want to help his body be stronger. If he wants to play sports, I support him."

Did she think he liked hockey?

"I think so," she said with a laugh. "I think he like … love it."

You've got to love that.

"That's why we're here, right?" Kings forward Jeff Carter said.

The Kings and Canucks played two preseason games in China, the first NHL games ever played here. The Kings defeated the Canucks 5-2 at Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai on Thursday before their shootout win in Beijing on Saturday.

China has enormous potential because of its population of 1.3 billion, its growing economy and the 2022 Beijing Olympics. The Chinese government wants 300 million to participate in winter sports leading up to those Olympics, and it asked the NHL to help grow hockey by lending its expertise in building hockey infrastructure and a national team, and by playing games in the country.

It's wonderful that the Kings and Canucks got to see new places like the Bund in Shanghai and Great Wall in Beijing, that they got to try new foods and be together overseas and bond. Those are life experiences they'll never forget.

Video: Canucks and Kings travel from Shanghai to Beijing

It's wonderful that expats got to see NHL games and wear jerseys from around the League, that Chinese kids already playing hockey got to meet players, get autographs from them and even skate with them. The NHL needs all its fans, however far flung. It needs to give oxygen to the first flickers of the flame.

It's wonderful that the 10,088 fans who attended the game in Shanghai waved rally towels and "oohed" and "aahed" all the time, that the crowd of 12,759 in Beijing was bigger and more energetic. It gives you a glimpse of what could be.

But the real reason the Kings and Canucks made the trek across the Pacific, the real thing that will move the needle, is reaching new fans -- people with no hockey background who might get hooked on something else in a country where basketball, soccer, badminton and table tennis are popular. That's where the growth is.

"This is an untapped market yet," Gary Banting said. "I can see it just exploding."

Banting is from north of Toronto. He taught and coached hockey for 30 years there. Now he teaches in Beijing and was at the Fan Fest on Saturday.

"A lot of my kids are excited about hockey," Banting said. "They watch it on TV. I have a couple students coming to this game."

There were kids at the Fan Fest who obviously had played hockey before, but there were more who obviously hadn't. They had to be taught how to hold a stick, how to shoot a puck, how to stop a puck.

At the "be a goalie" station, one kid learned how to put on the pads and position himself in the crease. As someone shot at him, you could hear him laughing even when they whizzed past. As he lifted his mask afterward, you could see him smiling.

Video: NHL Fan Fest in China teaches kids hockey

"The first thing I noticed was, there were a lot of kids," said Andong Song, the first NHL draft pick born in China, a defenseman taken by the New York Islanders in the sixth round (No. 172) in 2015. "I think that's a very good thing.

"Participation in a sport is a major factor in growing a sport. So when I saw a lot of kids, even the ones that didn't know how to hold a stick or how to shoot the puck, I think it's just good for me to see that they want to know, want to learn. I think that is huge."

The challenge now is to make sure those kids don't pick up a stick for the first time, have a little fun and go on to something else, so this effort does not go for naught.

The NHL does not have firm plans to return to China. It has to evaluate this experience and consult with the NHL Players' Association first. But NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the League was encouraged by what happened here and hopes to return on a regular basis.

"The responsibility once we leave is, how do we get kids on the ice?" Canucks coach Travis Green said. "How do we get kids playing hockey and falling in love with the game the way it is in North America? It's a great game. It's a fast game, competitive. I think it's a great sport to watch, especially live in person.

"Hopefully we can get people to fall in love with it in China, and the next time we come over there's more people playing the game."

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