Date: March 27, 2017

NHL poised to enter China, hockey’s next frontier

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By Canadian Press

When Andong Song started playing hockey in China at age 6, he wore figure skates on his feet and had to use the straight parts of short-track speedskating rinks for practice.

His father brought back equipment from his travels one piece at a time, and his family moved to Canada a few years later so he could pursue a career in the sport. Song, the first Chinese player selected in the NHL draft, envisions a day when that sort of cross-global exodus is no longer necessary for kids growing up in China.

That could be coming soon with the NHL looking at China as hockey’s next great frontier. With the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China is eager to step up its game and the league is intrigued by the potential of a new nontraditional market with 1.4 billion people that might take to hockey like it did basketball.

“It’s a place that hasn’t had that much of an opportunity to be introduced to what everybody acknowledges is a great game,” commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Because of the size of the market and the fact that lots of sports haven’t been developed there, it’s a good opportunity to expand the sport even further.”

This week, Bettman is expected to announce NHL preseason games in China between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, along with grassroots programs to build a hockey foundation where the NBA has laid one for decades. It’s the first big step toward the NHL making inroads in China, whether or not players participate in the 2018 Olympics in neighboring South Korea.

NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said showcasing the NHL, running clinics and getting more broadcast coverage all figure into the long-term strategy. Even though Russia’s expansive Kontinental Hockey League now has a team based in Beijing, NHL exhibition games — and potentially regular-season games as early as fall 2018 — will have a bigger impact.

“Even with the KHL there, they know it’s not the best league,” said Song, a Beijing native and sixth-round pick of the New York Islanders in 2015 who now plays for the Madison Capitols of the United States Hockey League. “They know it’s not the NHL.”

According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China only has 1,101 registered players and 154 indoor rinks. Despite having a quarter of China’s population, the U.S. has 543,239 players and 1,800 indoor rinks.

By October , 14 different NBA teams will have played 24 preseason games in greater China since 2004, so the NHL has some catching up to do. The Boston Bruins sent an envoy on a Chinese tour last summer that included players Matt Beleskey and David Pastrnak, and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis recently said his team could be next after hosting youth players from China in January.

“There will be about 200 new rinks being built in China and we would expect China being a very, very formidable force in the Olympics,” said Leonsis, who called China the next great hockey market. “And also we’ll see that China will be producing players and I would expect that we’ll have NHL players that were born and trained, just like we’ve seen in the NBA, and China will be able to bring players here.”

The NBA gained popularity in China in part due to Yao Ming, the first pick in the 2002 draft. The NHL is going into China hoping to develop homegrown stars. Chinese broadcaster and producer Longmou Li, who has worked the Stanley Cup Final and helped families move to North America for hockey, said 500 to 600 new families are joining the Beijing Hockey Association each year, which could mean churning out an NHL first-round pick every five to six years.

Song said because the sport is still in its infancy in China and centralized in the northeast and in big cities, keeping the best players there instead of seeing them leave for North America is the biggest challenge.

About 200 Chinese hockey families currently live in North America, Li said, and the return of those players, coupled with the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star’s presence and a commitment to skill development, will help the national team grow in preparation for the 2022 Olympics. With a broadcasting deal already in place to air four NHL games on state-owned China Central TV and 10-12 online through Tencent each week, his keys to the growth of Chinese hockey are players reaching the NHL and the national team competing at the top level of the world championships.

Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Keenan was recently tapped to take over Kunlun and oversee the men’s and women’s national teams, so the process is underway.

“If NHL can help China to get that, I think we can at least get 100 million fans from China,” Li said. “Because hockey is just so passionate a game, is so fast a game, it’s so easy to get people to get involved. But they will need to attract them to watch.”

Although being awarded the Olympics was impetus for the Chinese government to pour resources into hockey, it’s getting some help from the private sector in the form of Zhou Yunjie, the chairman of of metal can manufacturing company ORG Packaging. The goaltender-turned-billionaire is at the forefront of hockey’s growth in China through NHL partnerships and sponsorship’s.

“As long as (TV networks) in China broadcast many more games in China, it will attract more people to notice the NHL, especially the youth hockey player,” Zhou said through an interpreter. “Because there are many Chinese kids that have started learning hockey there, and there is a good population of the people that will develop hockey in China.”

When Chris Pronger famously plastered Justin Bieber into the boards during a celebrity game at NHL All-Star Weekend in January, not only was Zhou playing goal but an ORG Packaging patch was on players’ jerseys. Talking about spreading the “gospel” of hockey, Leonsis called Zhou “the greatest evangelist.”

Zhou can’t do it alone, and NHL integration in China is also connected to the 2022 Olympics. After NHL players participated in the past six Olympics, there’s pessimism about the league going to Pyeongchang next year. Discussions about Beijing will happen later.

By then, the league should know if the experiment is working.

“If we can get in on the ground floor, help them with that (and) bring our expertise,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “You can’t argue with the population or the economy, so if we’re able to do that it could be a great opportunity for us.”

Ice hockey comes to Santiago

By Nicholas Siler – Santiago Times

It’s a typically chilly Saturday morning during an untypically warm week in early August in Santiago and the Cerrogrado ice rink in Mall Vespucio has opened its doors to the Yetis, the city’s only ice hockey team. The players take to the ice and warm up under the glow of dim ballroom lights and disco balls hovering over the rink. Later the rink will be filled with families grasping the last bit of winter fun. Fresh from winning the Copa Invernada in Punta Arenas in July, the team has its sights set on September, October and beyond. In Punta Arenas they fended off teams from Iquique, Punta Arenas, Ushuaia in Argentina and the Falkland Islands and came home with the trophy. Chile appears to be taking its first steps into the fast-paced and ferociously competitive sport of ice hockey, fueled by aspirations of a federation that previously paid attention only to in-line hockey, a variation of the sport played off the ice on roller blades. However, the Chilean Ice Hockey Federation faces limits and hindrances to funding and publicity.

The Yetis took to the ice as an organized team in 2015 and became a recognized legal entity in 2016. Most of the Yetis had been in-line hockey players. In places like La Serena and Iquique, much of the players’ exposure to hockey came from foreigners – most often Canadians — working at nearby mines. Initially, hockey was played on roller blades on tiles of plastic flooring, since sustaining an ice rink was as good as impossible. Chile sent a national team to the 2000 and 2002 international in-line hockey championships and almost returned in 2015, but rival Argentina took the slot as the sole South American qualifier. Slowly many in-line hockey players became acquainted with ice hockey through media and trips overseas. However, there were very few opportunities at home. The Yetis third place finish in 2015 at the ice hockey Copa Invernada tournament and its title victory at this year’s contest have made Monica Arias, President of the Chilean Ice and Inline Hockey Association, cautiously optimistic.

An ice hockey team from Iquique regularly competes on ice with the southerly teams of Santiago and Punta Arenas. Those teams practice on ice rinks but the rinks are neither regulation-size nor freely available, as they belong to recreational ice-skating companies that operate them for entertainment at shopping malls. Arias points out that despite this handicap, media attention both abroad and in Chile has increased dramatically and she hopes that the Patagonia Challenge Cup (in which a team from Punta Arenas took part) and a potential Chile-only tournament, will increase the public’s interest. The association’s goal of sustaining two teams in Santiago (as is the case in Punta Arenas) will, she says, increase interest, as will its aspiration to field a national team for the Pan American Ice Hockey Tournament next year in Mexico City.

There is good reason for Chile to be hopeful. However, ex-Barcelona player and current Level 4 ice hockey coach Andrew Jasicki cautioned that without a regulation-size rink, none of Chile’s players would perform well in Mexico City. The Copa Invernada is a three-on-three tournament as only so many players can fit on a recreational rink. Full-game experience is severely lacking. Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina practice on larger rinks than those in Chile. In fact, the Patagonian Argentinian town of Ushuaia has an Olympic sized rink as well as a team that competes with teams from Argentina. Additionally, Ushuaia plays host to the End of the World hockey tournament which involves full teams on a regulation size rink. Still, there are exceptions. Colombia, which lacks full-sized rinks, beat heavyweight Mexico twice in a row for the gold and claimed a bronze at three previous tournaments. It benefits from dual citizens with professional or semi-professional ice hockey experience.

Argentina and Mexico send two squads each to the tournament, bringing the total number of teams competing to six. Former Chilean national in-line hockey team member and hockey promoter Mauricio Vieytes told International Ice Hockey Federation reporter Andy Potts that the Chilean federation might look into doing the same as Colombia, drawing on Chile’s expatriate/dual-citizen community from the United States, Italy, and Finland.

There are many challenges. Arias says coaches base their training on anecdotal experiences. The small recreational rinks make training awkward and sometimes teams share space with the public out just to enjoy the ice. Also, the players pay their own way. Arias explains, “At this time, each athlete finances their own actions, such as activities, participation at international tournaments, travel etc. The Yetis are a new club with no external funding, nor has it been nominated for competitive funding projects in any category or institution. We have only been using our own resources. We are already pressed for time to be part of the selection process because our situation is complicated considering the distance players have to travel right now.” At a more fundamental level, there has been little attention given to the prospects of ice hockey in Chile by the organized sporting authorities in the country. Arias plans to hold a meeting with the general secretary of the Chilean Olympic committee hoping for more help, infrastructure, and funding. “The idea is to develop a presentation of hockey to submit to the community either on the municipal or state level. She considers Mexico 2017 a steppingstone to the Winter Olympics in China in 2022.

It will be difficult to get there. Chile has few full-time players and has only three mall-based recreational ice rinks for practice. More public interest is needed to sustain hockey and develop talent for future competitions. Also missing is official cooperation between Argentina and Chile to mutually improve the quality of the sport. But Arias notes that increasing funding for infrastructure alone will not be enough and that teams need to perform. Still, the recent dominance of the Yetis and the successful junior youth ice hockey tournament in Punta Arenas give hope for the future. Perhaps hockey in Chile is finishing the first period of a match to win the public’s attention, with two more to go. How that game will end remains to be seen, but the opportunity for success is there.