SHENZHEN, China -- The kids had to stop their drills and wait for their new instructor to get on the ice. It was Wayne Gretzky.
Gretzky made an appearance at a clinic for his new China-based hockey school at the practice rink at Universiade Sports Center on Friday. It's the first year the Gretzky Hockey School has come to China.
The dozens of kids, some locals and some children of ex-pats living mostly in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, went to the center-ice face-off circle and banged their sticks on the ice as Gretzky and his sons Trevor and Ty came out to join them for the clinic. Parents made their way onto the ice to take pictures of Gretzky with the kids and coaches.
Gretzky is in China this week to promote hockey at the grassroots level, a key initiative in his new relationship with HC Kunlun Red Star, the only China-based franchise in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Video: Gretzky shares his thoughts on the NHL China Games
It also works out that he's here at the same time as the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins are preparing to play two preseason games as part of the 2018 O.R.G. NHL China Games.
Gretzky was on the ice in the practice rink shortly after the Bruins and Flames finished their first practices here on the main rink in the Sports Center. He sees the opportunity the NHL sees in China, a chance to create further global growth in the game, to get more kids playing and maybe, one day, have a Chinese-born NHL player.
"With the people of China hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, we're trying to give hockey a little bit of a jumpstart, a little bit of a boost," Gretzky said. "With the NHL here and this country having a team in the KHL, hockey seems to be on the rise and it's great for everyone."
Gretzky added that he thinks the sky is the limit for hockey in China once the people here get accustomed to the game and more kids start playing. He was impressed by the kids he was on the ice with Friday.
"The first thing you notice with kids is if they can skate, and all these kids skate really well," he said. "If you can skate well at a young age then you learn everything else about the game -- how to handle a pass, how to shoot. Skating is so important, and if you look at all the kids, they all skate really well."
Gretzky's trade to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 created a swell in kids playing in California and across warm-weather states, leading to the NHL putting teams in Florida, Texas, Tennessee and two more in California. He's hopeful that one day a parallel can be drawn to that in China, with his hockey schools and the NHL's presence here serving as the match that lights the flame.
Video: Dan Rosen previews the Flames and Bruins from China
"The game is a great game and once people get a chance to play it and see it, it's going to grow on its own," Gretzky said. "The game today is bigger and better than it's ever been, and worldwide we're getting more popular, simple as that."
Gretzky also expressed a hint of jealously toward the players on the Bruins and Flames, who are getting an opportunity to bring their training camps here.
"Oh, it's nothing but fun," he said. "It's an opportunity for them. It's early in training camp. It's a couple exhibition games. They're over here, they get their feet wet, they start getting ready for the season. More importantly, the culture here is so different that with so many young players in the League it's nothing but positive for them. I hope they embrace. I hope they take it in."
He's doing that on his own as well Gretzky, who has also spent time in Hong Kong and Beijing, will be in China through the middle of next week and has a visit to the Great Wall of China planned for Tuesday.
"The thing I've noticed here more importantly than anything is the people are so friendly and hospitable," Gretzky said. "It's been overwhelming how nice the people have been to us, so that part has been tremendous."