China to host NHL exhibition games in run-up to 2022 Winter Olympics

(Recasts, adds details, background) BEIJING, March 30 (Reuters) - The National Hockey League (NHL) will stage two annual pre-season games in China from this year as it looks to build interest in the country that will host the 2022 Winter Olympics, even as its participation in next year's Games remains in doubt. Commissioner Gary Bettman announced on Thursday that the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks would play exhibition games in Shanghai on Sept. 21 and in Beijing two days later. The NHL is the latest major sports league hoping to tap China and its 1.3 billion-person market, following European soccer teams and the National Basketball Association (NBA), which is highly popular in the country. The announcement in Beijing comes as the NHL has yet to decide whether its players will take part in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. NHL team owners are unhappy at having to shut down the season for two-and-a-half weeks and exposing their top players to injury during the Winter Games. Recent Winter Olympics have been preceded by the question of whether NHL players will take part, with Bettman saying last week that people should assume the league would not send its players to South Korea. However, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has agreed to cover the cost of travel and insurance for NHL players, Reuters reported on Wednesday, in hopes of breaking the impasse. The cost, which could run to $20 million, was covered at the last five games by the International Olympic Committee, which has said it would no longer do so in 2018. Bettman did not sound moved by the gesture. "The expenses that they say are being paid are consistent with the prior Olympics – that is not the issue we are dealing with," he told a media briefing at an arena in the Chinese capital. "We are focused on the disruption of the season." Bettman said the NHL was committed to growing the sport in China regardless of whether its players took part in the Olympics. "We first have to deal with South Korea before we can focus on Beijing," he said. "But the point is, whether or not the players play for two weeks in either South Korea or Beijing does not change our commitment for the long term to grow hockey in China." (Editing by Peter Rutherford)