When it comes to China, hockey is nowhere as popular as hoops. It might never be. With retired 7-foot-6 Yao Ming as a spokesperson for basketball in his native country, that’s a tall order.
But during his recent trip there, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly heard the same message over and again about that country’s growing fascination with the world’s fastest sport. From government representatives. From potential sponsors. Even during a Metallica concert at one of the venues he was checking out with Chinese officials.
It seems more and more, Daly learned, Chinese kids are into pucks.
“Everyone there kept telling me: “We’ve got a long way to go to catch up to basketball in China, but the bottom line is the younger demographic really connects with our game and thinks it’s cool,” Daly said in a phone interview with Postmedia.
“Not only that, they want to see it more.”
Ask, and ye shall receive.
If Daly and the league have their way, pre-season games involving NHL teams will be held in China as early as this September/October, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks among the parties reportedly interested. In a perfect world, the press conference unveiling the NHL’s plans will be a spectacle attended by fans, politicians and local children who are among the 1,100 hockey players the International Ice Hockey Federation claims are registered in the nation of 1.375 billion people.
(For the record, various Chinese outlets report the number of people playing hockey in that country is closer to 3,000.)
In any event, Daly and NHL officials understand that inside the borders of the world’s most popular country is a vast untapped frontier with limitless potential to grow both the sport and the revenues that go along with it.
In his visit to China last week, Daly’s activities included: Meeting with government officials looking to the NHL for advice in preparation for the 2022 Beijing Olympics; negotiating with companies eager to get a piece of the league’s sponsorship pie; and trying to lay the foundation that would see the country host exhibition games.
Daly had envisioned what the hockey environment in China might be like. But it took actually flying halfway around the world to have it all sink in.
In fact, Daly admitted his experience in China fueled his enthusiasm about the league’s hopes to establish a footprint in that country.
“I think in a lot of ways it did,” Daly said. “I think once you are there it makes it more real and less theoretical.
“We hope we’re at the point where the commissioner (Gary Bettman) can go over there and have the same reaction. We hope that happens in the relative near future. And it definitely makes it more real. There seems to be a high level of interest in learning the game.”
In 2004, Ming’s Houston Rockets played a two-game exhibition series against the Sacramento Kings, the NBA’s first such contests held in China. Those events gave basketball the type of momentum in China that Daly hopes hockey will enjoy via similar preseason contests.
“In my three days there, part of the process was working on moving the (preseason) game project along,” Daly said. “It seems that the NBA, having brought games over there, has been a game changer over there as far as basketball is concerned.
“Now everybody is excited about the prospect of NHL teams coming over. So, we’re obviously trying to make that happen as soon as possible. We’re still holding out hope it can happen (this year) but if that doesn’t happen I expect it’ll happen the following year. If you’re able to finalize that, you go over there to make the announcement. And you probably put some of our youth grass roots hockey infrastructure in place around the announcement with some of the local youth hockey organizations but also along with some of the local governments in the bigger cities and even sponsors.
“That’s another thing – corporate sponsors wanting to connect with the NHL and the brands, well, I would say, there’s a lot of interest. That’s all helpful too. So that’s really what’s next for us. It’s kind of incremental.”
To that end, Daly and the league last week completed a five-year partnership deal with Chinese internet giant Tencent which will see the company carry selected NHL games on its video sites and mobile platforms. The league already has an agreement with China’s public broadcaster CCTV to show a cache of NHL contests.
The catalyst for the Chinese government’s interest in hockey revolves around the looming 2022 Games, which are being looked upon to spike the number of people playing hockey there.
“I was surprised was the level of interest and curiosity about the game,” Daly said. “A lot of that has been spurred by the announcement of the Beijing Winter Olympics. I met with a couple of government officials in different capacities and a lot of people are focused on building some grass roots infrastructure and building a national team that can competitive at the Olympics, even if they don’t win a game. There’s a desire to do that.
“What I see as the opportunity is that, because there is a desire to do that, they want to engage in a whole list of levels. And again, there is government support for partnering to do that. And they were asking for our help and our expertise in helping to build on that culture. That I view as a real opportunity.”
This past summer, Connor McDavid took a trip to China as part of a BioSteel sponsorship event while Bruins winger Matt Beleskey also traveled there as part of a Boston contingent helping to teach kids about the game.
After last week, you can add Daly to the list of those with NHL connections who have been to China. And now that he’s returned to North America, he has a better grasp on the climate for hockey in that country.
In fact, he’s got a better grasp on China’s climate, period, one that seems to be more conducive to hockey than he ever thought possible.
“It was cold,” Daly said. “I expected it to be warmer. Everyone said Beijing was more of a summer Olympic city than a winter Olympic city. But it was cold there. And I didn’t bring an overcoat.”
“It was below zero Celcius. One day it was minus 11 C.”
Welcome to China, Bill Daly.
Welcome to China, National Hockey League.
Bill Daly was asked a lot of questions during his whirlwind three-day visit to China.
Surprisingly, queries about the possible inclusion of NHL players at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics weren’t among them.
“I expected that topic to come up at the meetings I had and it didn’t,” Daly told Postmedia in a phone interview. “And I had a lot of meetings.
“Even with the government entities which included China Winter Sport Federation and Ice Hockey Association, NHL participation in terms of player participation at the Beijing Games didn’t come up once. Again, maybe it’s because they assume it, maybe it’s because they don’t even know we participate.
“They want our help preparing for the Games. Like I said, NHL participation didn’t come up.”
Meanwhile Daly said the issue of NHLers taking part in the 2018 Games in South Korea remains in limbo.
“Originally I had kind of hoped to have a resolution by the end of the calendar year,” Daly said. “But because we don’t have one and because we have a contingency plan (schedule-wise) for if we’re going and not going, we really haven’t established any type of time frame.
“I can tell you this: There’s been no change in everyone’s respective positions.”