Date: February 12, 2017

Meet the Chinese billionaire who wants to grow hockey in the world’s biggest market

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By Ken Campbell – The Hockey News

High above the ridiculousness that is the NHL All-Star Game, a 55-year-old Chinese billionaire looks on from his suite at the Staples Center. It’s the ultimate juxtaposition on a couple of levels. Chinese billionaires don’t often attend hockey games and this game doesn’t really represent anything remotely close to NHL hockey. At one point, an associate who hands out wooden business cards that cost five bucks each, pulls up a clip on his smart phone of a goalie making a diving save.

“I goalie,” the Chinese billionaire says proudly.

Meet Zhou Yunjie, the chairman of a company called ORG Packaging based in Beijing. In 2016, he was ranked No. 271 on Forbes’ China Rich List with a net worth of $1.2 billion, up from No. 348 the year before. When you’re this rich and accomplished, people call you Mister. So most people in North America refer to him as Mr. Zhou (pronounced JOE). And if he hadn’t already existed, there’s a good chance the NHL would have tried to invent him.

A billionaire whose goal is to grow hockey in the world’s most fertile and unexplored market? Are you kidding? With the 2022 Winter Olympics going to Beijing, there has been an explosion of interest in winter sports in China, a market that is continually grasping the concept of sports as a form of entertainment. And Zhou wants to work with the NHL as a conduit to that market.

“We are looking forward to future cooperation with the NHL,” Zhou told THN.com through a translator during all-star weekend. “I would really like to work with them.”

And the feeling is mutual. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly recently returned from a trip to China where he had meetings with seven different governmental and private sector companies in three days. ORG already has partnerships with the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals and Los Angeles Kings. In fact, the Bruins will be holding their second ORG Night Sunday when they host the Montreal Canadiens and Zhou will be on hand to conduct the ceremonial faceoff. ORG was a sponsor of the World Cup of Hockey, had board advertising at the All-Star Game and currently has a deal with young Bruins’ star David Pastrnak. Daly told THN.com that the NHL and ORG are “in an advanced stage of discussions,” to have ORG on board as a league sponsor.

“Hockey is the No. 1 sport on ice. It’s marketable and there’s a big market there.”

“We are thrilled with the relationship we and our clubs have established with Mr. Zhou and the interest he has shown, and the investment he has made, in the NHL,” Daly said in an email to THN.com. “Certainly it is helpful to have that relationship as we attempt to broaden and deepen our ties with the Chinese business community. But what we are finding is Mr. Zhou is not alone in his interest in hockey. There seems to be a real appetite in the Chinese business community to associate with the North American sports business. And we think we can be a beneficiary of that.”

The NBA has had a foothold in China for more than two decades now. This past year marked the 10th edition of the China Games featuring preseason games between two NBA teams, something the NHL hopes to replicate next fall with exhibition games featuring the Kings and Vancouver Canucks. The NBA is now a huge part of Chinese culture, aided by the fact that homegrown 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming had a Hall of Fame career with the Houston Rockets. Zhou Qi, a 7-foot-2 forward who was drafted in the second round last June by the Houston Rockets, is currently playing in the Chinese Basketball Association and hopes to follow in Ming’s footsteps.

As is the case with most non-traditional hockey markets, there is almost no grassroots connection to the game and that is a huge obstacle. But even that might be changing. The Chinese government is trying to build between 200 and 300 indoor rinks in the next couple of years and, funded by Zhou’s company, young Chinese players have been making pilgrimages to both Boston and Washington to do skill development with NHL teams. Two dozen young Chinese players just completed a 12-day camp at the Capitals practice facility and 25 more will spend the next couple of weeks working with the Bruins.

Zhou said there are currently about 2,000 kids and 100 clubs playing in the Beijing area, a number he said will grow with more state sponsorship of the game.

“People’s lives in China are getting better and they are turning to the concept of competition in the sports into entertainment,” said Richard Zhang, president of Ocean 24 Sports and Entertainment, who helps Zhou put together his deals in North America. “Hockey is the No. 1 sport on ice. It’s marketable and there’s a big market there. That’s why (Zhou) is putting his energy into this.”

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It all started with a lunch meeting during the World Cup. Judd Moldaver, an agent with the CAA Agency that represents Pastrnak, thought it would be a good idea for Kings president of business operations, Luc Robitaille to meet Zhou. The Kings’ parent company, AEG, owns the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai and the MasterCard Center in Beijing.

The two hit it off over their lunch in Toronto and that led to Robitaille inviting Zhou to come to all-star weekend. And the best part of it all? Robitaille also invited Zhou to play goal in the celebrity all-star game that was held the day before the main event.

“He loves the game and he loves Bobby Orr,” Robitaille said. “He really enjoyed himself in the game and I think he and the guys got a big kick out of it.”

Zhou has been on Forbes’ billionaire list for two years now and is described by the magazine as a self-made billionaire. He founded his company along with his mother in 1984, starting with four employees. Almost a quarter of a century later, ORG is a publicly traded company that has about 4,000 employees and boasts Red Bull, Coca-Cola, Budweiser and Campbell’s Soup as some of its major clients. ORG is China’s leading producer of three-piece cans, which are used primarily for food, and two-piece cans, used for soft drinks and beer.

Zhou started playing hockey as a goalie in Beijing when he was 12 and has had a fascination with the sport ever since. He regularly watches NHL games and is interested in hockey not only as a business venture, but in growing the game in China on the grassroots level. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China currently has about 1,000 registered players, which means a hockey player is literally one in a million. With that kind of potential for growth, Zhou is using his partnerships with NHL teams to expose young players to the kind of coaching they need to become elite players.

“With people like that wanting to push the development of the game with us, it’s absolutely phenomenal.”

Zhou has arranged for current and former Bruins to go to China to conduct hockey clinics in the summer and this coming summer, Capitals coach Barry Trotz and several alumni players will be making a trip to hold another camp. Zhou has also arranged for players from the Beijing Primary School to attend camps in both Boston and Washington. This week, the Bruins will host 25 players and the Capitals recently wrapped up a 12-day session with 24 players ranging in age from six to 12 that finished with a scrimmage against a group of local players at the Verizon Center between periods of the Capitals game against the Bruins Feb. 1.

“I was definitely pleasantly surprised,” said Dan Jablonic, the hockey director at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, whether it was going to be a learn-to-skate, learn-to-play clinic, but they all could skate really well. I would say the majority of the players had ‘B’ or ‘A’ level travel skills and there were actually two players who were top players, who were definitely ‘AA’ or ‘AAA’ players.”

What Jablonic found with the players he coached was they had a very good handle on individual skills. He found a group of kids that listened well, worked very hard and kept their attention focused even at the end of the second of a two-a-day session.

“To see how well these kids listen was really a coach’s dream,” Jablonic said. “At the end of a two-a-day when most kids are really out to la-la land, these kids stayed focused and would sit and take a knee and listen and watch, even when they were tired.”

Where they are lacking, Jablonic said, was in game concepts and the team game, something he attributed to the fact that so many of the young players receive the bulk of their coaching in one-on-one settings. Jablonic said the one player he classified as a AAA player had tremendous individual skills, but found himself turning the puck over in game situations because he was trying to do too much on his own.

“We tried to get them to understand the concept of them really giving the pass and going to the open area and understanding that you might be skilled, but you have to utilize the other four players who are out on the ice with you to become a better player,” said Jablonic, who played at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the ECHL before playing briefly in Sweden. “That’s a part of their game that was a little bit of a weakness, but they were willing to learn that. I was surprised at how well they moved the puck over the course of their time there and became willing to pass the puck, get it back and utilize the whole ice.”

And this is where the cultural differences might be something of an obstacle. As is the case in North America, a good number of former players have seen an opportunity to make a living as skills coaches in China and they have been coming from Russia and other former Soviet countries. There are even some Canadians coaching there. It has led to what Jablonic calls, “almost a figure skating model” where coaching is much more focused on the individual. That could change if the government does manage to build all those rinks and makes the game accessible to more people.

But development takes time. Lots of it. The Sunbelt states producing top players is a relatively new phenomenon and kids not having places to play is a barrier to development. Two years ago, the New York Islanders drafted Andong Song in the sixth round. Song was born in Beijing and began playing hockey there, but moved to Canada when he was 10 and now 20, is playing for the Madison Capitols of the USHL, where he has played 33 games with no points. Players who are willing to go to the lengths that Song and his family have gone to develop as hockey players might be the key to that development, at least in its infancy stages. Jablonic said that a number of players who took part in the most recent camp are already making plans to come back this summer for a deke and score school.

“I think it would be great for Hockey Canada and USA Hockey to help them with the proper development model,” Jablonic said. “I don’t agree with what they’re doing right now. You hear some of the coaches talk about it who were with this group and they were saying certain guys come in and they’re identifying players so early and if that coach has a group of really good mites or squirts, that doesn’t predict how good those kids are going to be as bantams and they’re excluding a bigger pool of players.”

There are critics of the development model over here that might complain about the same thing happening, but the difference here is the massive pool of players. But in terms of building the game, that’s where the NHL might come in. At least that’s what Daly found when he visited there.

“What I sensed was a real welcoming and open attitude to having us there, having us do more things there, making our games more available and accessible there,” Daly said. “They were very encouraging of us bringing our teams and games to China, helping and supporting the Chinese youth hockey infrastructure and assisting them in building a national program. In every one of the meetings I had, it was mentioned that while hockey doesn’t have as much exposure as basketball in China, our game was very popular with the Chinese youth and teenagers who were fascinated by the skill and pace of hockey played at a high level.”

So perhaps hockey isn’t just a unique fascination of one of the country’s billionaires, though having someone like that advocating for the NHL and the game certainly doesn’t hurt. As Daly pointed out, building and growing winter sports there is a priority at the highest levels of government. Hockey can’t help but benefit from that, but the NHL has to be there to showcase its product in more than just pre-season games. That will require it to send players there for the 2022 Olympics, which could be good news for those still holding out hope for 2018 in Pyeongchang. If the International Olympic Committee draws a line in the sand and says no Beijing without Pyeongchang, that could be enough to prompt the NHL to rethink its position.

Zhou, meanwhile, will keep pushing. He has had a number of meetings with both Daly and commissioner Gary Bettman and the two of them held a breakfast meeting during the all-star festivities to discuss business opportunities. And if the NHL is looking to maximize revenues, it could do worse than turn its efforts to a country with 1.4 billion people.

Or as Robitaille said: “With people like that wanting to push the development of the game with us, it’s absolutely phenomenal. It’s a great market and at the end of the day, if you grow the game, there’s more money for everyone.”

Switzerland qualifies for Olympic Games

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By Adam Steiss IIHF.com

Switzerland has punched its ticket to Korea, defeating the Czech Republic 4-1 and qualifying for the country’s fourth straight Olympics.

Swiss star forwards Alina Muller and Lara Stalder each scored twice, while Florence Schelling allowed an early goal but shut the door down on the Czechs the rest of the way to earn Player of the Game honours.

“Unbelievable, its what we’ve been dreaming of since last summer,” said Stalder, who finished the tournament as the top point scorer with eight goals and four assists in three games.

“I’m really tired, and happy! We gave it all in the end,” said Muller. “Everyone in the room deserved this, it would have been so hard to miss the Olympics and I’m happy that the Swiss can participate.”

Going into the third period holding a slim 2-1 lead, the outcome was far from certain as the Swiss were battling a hard-nosed Czech team playing fast north-south hockey.

But Muller, who has been unstoppable on the Swiss power play in this tournament, scored her second goal of the game, with a shot from the side of the net on the man advantage to give Switzerland some breathing room early in the period. 

The Czech’s best opportunity to cut the lead came midway through the third, but Simona Studentova’s open shot on a breakaway rang off Schelling’s right post. After the missed chance, the Czech offence fell silent and Stalder finished things off with an empty netter sending Switzerland to PyeongChang 2018, the country’s fourth straight Olympic Games.

“It’s amazing to win it here at home, amazing too that so many people came out to cheer us on,” said Schelling after the game. 

The Swiss came into the game as the clear favourites, veterans of three Olympics and Sochi 2014 bronze medallists. However, Switzerland’s only other game against the Czechs at the senior women’s level came at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship, a 3-1 Czech victory.

In front of a loud crowd of local fans in the Swiss ski resort town of Arosa, the Czechs had a tall order to fill, trying to contain a team that has scored ten goals in two games and led by forwards Lara Stalder and Alina Muller who combined for 12 points in that span.

The game was fast paced right from puck drop. In the first period, an aggressive Czech Republic forecheck kept the Swiss hemmed in in their own zone. The Czechs had a great opportunity to take some momentum away from the hometown Swiss with an early power play, but Tereza Vanisova missed on an open shot in front of the net.

The hard work paid off though late in the period, when a deflected clearing attempt gave the puck to Katerina Mrazova in front of the net. Her shot was stopped by Schelling, but Aneta Ledlova was there for the rebound and put the Czechs up 1-0.

A Lara Benz hooking penalty put the Swiss on their heels, but the team was able to get out of the period down by just a goal.

For most of the second period, the Czechs continued to do all the right things – hard forechecking and consistent shot blocking – to frustrate the Swiss star forwards. But the Swiss finally hit paydirt with 5:41 remaining, when tournament top scorer Lara Stalder found her linemate Alina Muller with a precision pass to the side of the net for the one-timer.

Then the vaunted Swiss power play struck with just 18 seconds left in the period. This time it was Muller setting up Stalder for a blast from the point to put the Swiss up 2-1 going into the third, a lead the Swiss would never relinquish. 

“They’re fantastic, the way they played this whole tournament was absolutely amazing,” said Schelling of Muller and Stalder. “In my opinion they won the tournament for us, they have all doors open to them and if they play the way they have in this tournament then we are going to be really good in the future.”

Although the team finished one win short of the Games, the Czechs battled hard and took a major step forward in the country’s women’s hockey development with a strong showing at the Olympic Qualification. 

“I definitely think we left it out there, too bad we didn’t score more goals on the power play but I’m definitely proud of our team,” said Czech captain Alena Polenska. “We have a young team but the girls work hard and leave everything out there and I hope we get another chance in four years.”

Japan beats Germany, qualifies for Olympic Games

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By James ArmstrongIIHF.com

With Japan holding a slim 2-1 lead, Kubo’s blast from the top of the faceoff circle with 5:17 left in the third period gave the hosts a two-goal cushion and sent them to their third Olympics following Sochi and Nagano.

It was Kubo’s tournament-leading fifth goal of the tournament. The 34-year-old forward scored a hat trick in the 6-1 win over Austria on Thursday and added another goal in the 4-1 win over France on Saturday.

“Kubo came through like she has all tournament,” said Japan coach Takeshi Yamanaka. “She just knows how to score in important situations and played a huge role for us.”

Germany pulled their goaltender with two minutes remaining and desperately tried to get back in it but Japan’s defence stood tall.

“I put the players out I knew I could count on and they did a great job,” Yamanaka said of the final two minutes.

As impressive as Japan was on offense, they gave up only three goals all tournament and finished with the maximum nine points.

Japan got on the scoreboard first when Moeko Fujimoto stuffed a backhand from close range past German goaltender Jennifer Harss at 12:16 of the second period.

Just over two minutes later the hosts doubled the lead on the power play. With Tanja Eisenschmid serving a two-minute penalty for hooking, Shoko Ono tapped in a rebound from the side of the net.

Germany responded with a power play goal of its own late in the second to cut the lead to 2-1.

Eisenschmid took a pass in the high slot and sent a wrister to the top corner with 3:30 remaining.

The first period was high-paced with few whistles. Japan came close eight minutes in on a 2-on-1 break but Kubo was denied by Harss. Akane Hosoyamada rang a slap shot off the crossbar with seven seconds left in the first.

Japan took two penalties late in the first period but Germany was unable to take advantage.

“To beat Japan you have to take advantage of your chances,” said German coach Benjamin Hinterstocker. “We tried everything to beat them. Both teams had chances, it was a high-tempo game and both teams had a chance to win.”

Eight teams will play in the women’s tournament in Pyeongchang. The United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden and Finland had already qualified along with South Korea which earns a spot as the host nation.Joining them now will be “Smile Japan”.