NHL hoping to make inroads in China with preseason games


NHL hoping to make inroads in China with preseason games
  1. NHL hoping to make inroads in China with preseason games
    SHANGHAI (AP) — As the Vancouver Canucks held their first practice in Shanghai before their exhibition game with the Los Angeles Kings, a dense fog settled over the ice. The humidity in the arena was high and the players could barely see the puck. Large dehumidifiers were rolled in and the mist eventually cleared, but the NHL has perhaps a bigger visibility problem in China — a country with little tradition of winter sports, hockey included. The league is hoping to turn that around with a m…
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SHANGHAI (AP) — As the Vancouver Canucks held their first practice in Shanghai before their exhibition game with the Los Angeles Kings, a dense fog settled over the ice. The humidity in the arena was high and the players could barely see the puck.

Large dehumidifiers were rolled in and the mist eventually cleared, but the NHL has perhaps a bigger visibility problem in China — a country with little tradition of winter sports, hockey included. The league is hoping to turn that around with a major push in the country, beginning with its first two preseason games between the Canucks and Kings in Shanghai and Beijing this week.

The timing couldn't be better for the NHL. With Beijing set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the government is putting a massive emphasis on developing winter sports. Hockey training programs and youth leagues are expanding across China, and the nation's first professional team, the Kunlan Red Star, plays in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.

With interest on the rise, the NHL believes it now has an opportunity to crack a market that has traditionally been more fixated on basketball and soccer.

"You don't quite know what to expect the first time the game is coming here, but I've always believed that hockey is a game you need to see live," Los Angeles Kings coach John Stevens said after Wednesday's practice. "And once you see it live, you become hooked as a fan."

A glance at the numbers shows just how far the NHL has to go. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China has just 1,101 registered players, compared with nearly 556,000 in the U.S. and more than 631,000 in Canada.

And the fan base in a nation of more than 1.2 billion people is still in its infancy. On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, the NHL has just 47,000 followers, some of whom are obviously new to the sport. (One posted a question about the temperature of the arena and what was suitable to wear to the game.) The NBA, which hosted its first preseason exhibition games in China in 2004, boasts more than 33 million followers on Weibo.

"We're learning a lot about how to market here and we're learning a lot about how tickets are sold," says David Proper, the NHL's executive vice president of media and international strategy. "We're just viewing this as Year 1 of a multi-year project and in Year 1 we may not knock it out of the park . but we can still build over time."

Media exposure certainly helps. State broadcaster CCTV now televises five games per week to Chinese audiences and the Internet giant Tencent streams 14 games per week on its digital platforms, including the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The NHL also has an influential partner on the ground in Zhou Yunjie, the billionaire founder of a Chinese drinks packaging company who has devoted significant time and resources to building the game he fell in love with as a youth in Beijing. Zhou's company, ORG Packaging, is the presenting partner for this week's exhibition games.

"Hockey was actually quite common in northern China back in the '60s and '70s, so there is a foundation among the kids in those areas," Zhou told The Associated Press at his company's newly opened hockey training base in a Beijing suburb, which includes a fully stocked gym, physical therapy room and a hotel for players attending training camps.

Zhou said China's hockey revival should focus on both universities and a professional league, using the North American, northern European and Russian systems as models.

"It will take time before ice hockey really becomes like a religion with young people as it is in the West," he said. "But ice hockey will definitely catch on with lots of kids."

One thing that will certainly help is developing a home-grown star similar to Yao Ming in basketball and Li Na in tennis. There are promising signs on this front, too.

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