On March 30, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Special Assistant to the Executive Director Mathieu Schneider will be in Beijing, announcing that the Vancouver Canucks and the Los Angeles Kings will play two preseason games in China in September.
According to ESPN.com, one game will be at the LeSports Center, an Olympic venue in 2022, while the other will likely be in Shanghai.
This is a really, really big deal.
First, because the NHL never puts its product in emerging non-hockey markets like this.
Since Bettman became commissioner, the NHL has played games in London, Helsinki, Klagenfurt (Austria), Innsbruck (Austria), Stockholm, Salzburg (Austria), Berlin, Bern, Bratislava (Slovakia), Gothenburg (Sweden), Prague, Tampere (Finland), Zurich, Linköping (Sweden), Karlstad (Sweden), Mannheim (Germany), Belfast, Saint Petersburg, Liberec (Czech Republic), Malmö (Sweden), Riga, Zug (Switzerland) and Hamburg.
In 2006, the NHL had the Florida Panthers and New York Rangers play a game in San Juan.
And then there were the Japan games. In 1997, 1998 and 2000, the NHL sent teams to Tokyo (the first two years) and Saitama City (in 2000) to play regular-season games.
The genesis of the Japanese games were the 1998 Nagano Games, the first featuring NHL players. The 1997 series also featured the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and sought to capitalize on the star power of Paul Kariya, who is half-Japanese.
In true NHL fashion, Kariya missed the event due to a contract dispute.
Japan excepted, the NHL usually sends hockey where hockey already is.
Unless, of course, there’s an Olympic groundwork-laying reason to send them elsewhere …
But let’s put Beijing 2022 aside for a moment. The other reason this is really, really big news is that China has, like, all the money. And with the NHL having opened most of its revenues streams domestically at full blast, they’re going to need new ones, and China is as intriguing a new market as there is, according to the Globe & Mail:
There is interest on both sides of the Pacific to create closer ties as the NHL tries to expand its footprint beyond North America and Chinese authorities look to the NHL for its expertise in helping them develop a hockey culture and trying to popularize the sport in China ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.
Chinese president Xi Jinping is widely believed to be a hockey fan, his ardor for the sport second only to soccer. Another Asian Olympics next year, the Pyeongchang Games in South Korea, has further fueled a desire in China to achieve winter sports glory. The Chinese are hoping a trickle-down affect will help create a stronger national hockey team that won’t be embarrassed during the Olympics.
But while it might take a while for the NHL’s version of Yao Ming to captivate local fans, there’s another entry point into the NHL that deserves watching: Chinese ownership of teams.
In China, local government functionaries and corporate titans alike believe they can help hockey grow in part by acquiring ownership in a North American team whose skill, savvy and branding can be used to improve hockey back home. Chinese buyers are looking for high-performing teams that can provide a return on investment, while knowing that the Original Six are likely too sacred to touch. Instead, they have trained their sights on clubs such as the Dallas Stars, San Jose Sharks and Carolina Hurricanes.
“The stars are in line,” said Peter Schloss, managing partner at CastleHill Partners Ltd., a Beijing-based merchant bank that specializes in media, sports and entertainment. “We’ve been approached frequently by potential Chinese buyers of all or parts of NHL franchises,” he said. “If there’s a willing seller on the NHL side, there are willing buyers in China. That’s a certainty.”
(Peter Karmanos working with a group of Chinese investors would, perhaps, the greatest reality series since the first year of ‘Road To The Winter Classic.’)
Bettman told the Globe & Mail that the NHL “doesn’t “have any restrictions based on national origin” for owners.
One assumes that if the targets are American teams in “non-traditional markets”, you’re not going to run into the same nationalist backlash like we saw in the Chinese investment in AC Milan.
It’ll be interesting to see how the NHL cultivates China as a market. Provided, of course, that they don’t all become massive Mike Keenan fans and are Team KHL, going forward.
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