The National Hockey League made its official entrance to China last week with two preseason matches between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver the Canucks. The Kings took both, besting the Canucks 5-2 at Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz Arena last Thursday, and winning 4-3 in an overtime shootout at Beijing’s Wukesong Stadium this past Saturday.
China represents a major emerging market for American major league sports. Both Tom Brady and Russell Wilson dropped in over the summer to compete for passing yards on the Great Wall. The NBA has been holding China Games since 2004, two years into the American career of legendary center Yao Ming. The NHL is the latest to horn in on the action — last week’s matches were preceded by a visit from the Boston Bruins, who ran a clinic for young hockey fans in Beijing earlier this year.
The NHL has a solid angle, as Beijing is gearing up to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. In addition to floating Mahjong as a potential sport, China is also encouraging its populace to familiarize themselves with the games. According to a recap of the preseason matches on NHL’s official site:
The Chinese government wants 300 million people to participate in winter sports as part of the ramp up to the 2022 Beijing Olympics and asked the NHL for help in growing hockey. Central to the request was that the League lend its expertise in building hockey infrastructure and a national team, and play games in the country.
Others are skeptical of the NHL’s potential to penetrate the Chinese market. CBC writer Tim Wharnsby observes:
Asia is a market the NHL has toyed with before. The Canucks and Anaheim Ducks opened the 1997-98 season with a two-game set in Japan and the game’s best returned a few months later for the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano.
But the league did little after this first step. Meanwhile, 7-foot-6 Yao Ming began his Hall-of-Fame NBA career in 2003 and basketball swiftly became a popular sport in China.
Well, China’s changed a lot since 1998, and maybe Yao broke the dam. Maybe not. Hockey still has a long way to go to catch up to basketball’s cultural clout — the Chinese Basketball Association has even become an attractive destination for NBA exiles like Stephon Marbury, who is a Chinese cultural treasure at this point.
In any case, here’s highlight reel from NHL’s China debut:
Also, if anyone has tickets to one of those Warriors/Timberwolves preseason games in October hit me up in the comments.
Cover image: NHL.com