Later this month, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly will take a business trip to China.
Along with other items on his itinerary, Daly hopes to get a better sense on whether NHL games in China are practical, paving the way for more involvement from the League in the country.
“I think it’s fair to say we hope to be in a position to stage NHL games there, probably initially preseason games and then potentially on a longer-term basis, regular-season games,” Daly said in a phone interview with Puck Daddy. “We’re working on that possibility potentially as early as next year and with this visit, we’ll know a lot more about whether we can pull that off or not.”
Daly’s trip should be one of the biggest steps in the League’s recent push into China, the world’s most populous nation with 1.3 billion people. The next step will come when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is expected to go in the early spring, according to Daly.
“I suppose I’d be the highest level executive who’s going, but in a lot of ways, I hope to be kind of setting the table for the highest level executive going, which would be Gary,” Daly said.
Currently, China has a total of 1,101 players and 360 combined indoor and outdoor rinks according to the IIHF’s website, but the league believes these numbers should trend upwards with the coming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“This is very much a priority for us and we definitely plan on having a presence there over the next little while to explore the opportunity,” Daly said.
Over the last year, the NHL has seemed to make a much more noticeable push into China. During the summer of 2016, Connor McDavid took a trip to China as part of a BioSteel sponsorship event, becoming the first active NHL player to visit the country on promotional business. The Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings sent contingents during the offseason and recently, TSN’s Darren Dreger reported that the Vancouver Canucks and Kings were looking at staging a preseason game in China as early as next season.
Daly said the NHL would like to have a preseason game in China for 2017-18, but couldn’t say with 100 percent certainty that it would happen.
“I think the hope is certainly we’d like to do it for next year, but I’m not in a position as I sit here right now that it’s definitely going to happen for next year and again part of what we’ll be doing when we’re over there is seeing whether it can happen as early as next year,” Daly said. “That’s where I’ll leave it. We have a certain scenario in mind with respect to what can be done, we just have to make sure it can be done before we make any announcements.”
Said Kings president of business operations Luc Robitaille, “We think there’s a huge opportunity for growth (in China). We know a lot of our games are being televised over there.”
In the past, the the New York Islanders were at the forefront of the NHL’s Chinese involvement with their Charles B. Wang Ice Hockey Project Hope program. This bore the name of the team’s then-majority owner Charles Wang, who was born in Shanghai. Project Hope aimed to “provide young Chinese athletes with access to higher education in the United States, promote cultural exchange between the two cultures and grow the sport of ice hockey worldwide.”
The reason for the NHL’s increased attention towards China, according to Daly, has to do with how the government has responded to the IOC’s decision to award the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing.
“I think (the Winter Olympics) has created an emphasis on building winter sport in China and obviously we’re a primary winter sport,” Daly said. “I think there’s interest and appetite within kind of the governmental circles to make efforts at building hockey infrastructure and we want to be helpful, as the premier professional hockey league in the world, we want to be helpful in building that infrastructure.”
China has the world’s second-largest economy behind the United States, so making inroads into the country could also help the NHL’s bottom line. The league already has a relationship with Chinese packaging company ORG, but a deeper bond with other corporations in China could open more options.
“Obviously part of building a presence there is to build a relationship with Chinese companies and try to build more partnerships,” Daly said.
The Kontinental Hockey League expanded into Beijing this year with Kunlun Red Star, but the NHL said its decision to jump into the Chinese market this year has nothing to do with KHL fan competition in the country.
Said Daly, “I don’t feel like we feel like we’re competitive with the KHL really in any space. I think they have launched that league with the objective longer term to be competitive with the NHL but to this point we haven’t seen that.
“I don’t feel like we’re competitive with the KHL in terms of building hockey in China and I’m not sure the people we’re dealing with view them to be a competitor of the NHL in that regard,” he added. “I think this is very much a clean canvas for us to kind of build on.”
The NHL’s look into China comes at an interesting time as the league tries to make a decision on whether it will go to Pyeongchang, South Korea for the 2018 Olympic Games. The NHL has said it could skip out on South Korea, since it lacks the same rich business opportunities, but still go to Beijing.
“I haven’t studied it that closely, but by my understanding is the Chinese government is investing a lot of money in hockey right now in preparation so just that spells opportunity,” Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said.
A country with that many people is sure to produce an NHL player at some point – but it does take time. In 1987, NBA commissioner David Stern was able to get league games on television in China, which laid a foundation in that market. Still, it took until 2001 when Wang Zhizhi suited up for the Dallas Mavericks, that a Chinese born player played in the NBA.
Andong Song became the first Chinese born player to be selected in the NHL Draft when the Islanders picked him in the sixth-round in 2015.
Song – who moved to Oakville, Ontario when he was 10 after playing in Beijing as a youngster – may make it at some point, but he’s just 19 years old and is currently playing in the USHL with the Madison Capitals.
“It all goes back to kind of an interest in hockey,” Daly said. “You have to kind of have an interest in the sport and kind of a vision with respect to where the sport is and where it can go and I think the appetite in China around the game seems to be at an all-time high and kind of sloping upwards. We certainly hope to take advantage of that.”
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