WASHINGTON -- Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis envisions a day when a player born and trained in China will play in the NHL. He also believes that day isn't far off.
By hosting a group of 25 youth hockey players from two primary schools in Beijing the past 10 days to kick off Hockey Is For Everyone month, Leonsis and the Capitals have seen there is some young talent there already. And with the 2022 Beijing Olympics on the distant horizon, Leonsis expects the development process to be accelerated.
"We believe and I believe that China is the next great market for hockey," Leonsis said Wednesday. "The Winter Olympics will be played in China. The Chinese government, the Chinese people, the universities and secondary schools are committed to the game. There will be about 200 new rinks being built in China and we would expect China being a very, very formidable force in the Olympics, and also we'll see that China will be producing players and I would expect that we'll have NHL players that were born and trained, just like we've seen in the NBA, and China will be able to bring players here."
Hockey Is For Everyone is the NHL's youth development program, which promotes giving children of all backgrounds opportunities to play hockey. In conjunction with ORG Packaging, a metal packaging product manufacturer based in Beijing, the Capitals brought the youth players to Washington partly so they could learn from coaches, Capitals alumni such as Peter Bondra, Alan May and Paul Mulvey, but also so they could experience what the NHL game is like.
As part of Chinese Cultural Night, ORG Packaging chairman Zhou Yunjie and some youth players took part in a ceremonial puck drop prior to the Capitals game against the Boston Bruins at Verizon Center on Wednesday. The game was telecast on CCTV in China.
Video: Mr. Zhou's Chinese Cultural Night Puck Drop
The players, ages 6-12, began their visit by attending the morning skate at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Jan. 23 and capped it with a scrimmage at Verizon Center on Wednesday afternoon. In between, they participated in multiple clinics with youth hockey teams from Washington, D.C. and the surrounding area.
Through a translator, Zhou said having the Capitals-Bruins game televised in China "will attract more people to notice the NHL, especially the youth hockey player, because there are many Chinese kids that have started learning hockey there, and there is a good population of people that will develop hockey in China."
Zhou also believes this is just the start for his country.
"Fifteen years ago, Chinese TV only broadcast one NBA game a month in China," he said. "Now they are broadcasting four or five games in China every week."
The next step will be bringing the NHL to China. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly visited the country last month and has said the League is hoping to play preseason games there as early as next season.
For the NHL, China is a mostly untapped market. According to the IIHF's website, the country has 1,101 registered hockey players, including 585 junior players, 222 adult male players and 294 adult female players from a population of more than 1.3 billion.
Video: ORG Packaging Youth Hockey's trip to Washington, D.C.
But there is room for the sport to grow, with 154 indoor rinks and 206 outdoor rinks in place and plans to build many more.
"When they bid and won the Winter Olympics the country basically said, 'We want to have a competitive team, and to do that we want to jumpstart hockey and the country will build more than 200 rinks and they'll be up in 12 to 18 months,' " Leonsis said. "So when you have that kind of infrastructure and investment, the next thing they'll do is look to the NHL for coaches, instructors, infrastructure people, ice people [to] come on over and teach and help [them]."
The Capitals plan to be involved in that as well, with coach Barry Trotz and some of their alumni traveling to China this summer. The Bruins were part of the process last summer when Zhou helped arrange for a group that included forwards Matt Beleskey and David Pastrnak and alumni Andrew Raycroft and Bob Sweeney to visit Beijing and Shanghai along with members of the Boston Bruins Youth Hockey Development Team.
Zhou said holding NHL preseason games in China "will be a great help" to the sport's development in the country. Leonsis believes NHL teams might someday play regular season games in China.
"We say hockey is for everyone. There's a billion people in China, so it's time to accelerate that spreading the gospel, if you will, of the great game," Leonsis said. "Mr Zhou is the greatest evangelist because he loves the game and plays the game and he believes that the NHL is the best league with the best players. So sending some of our players over and our coaches over makes a lot of sense."