With China hosting the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022, the NHL figured the time was right to introduce the world’s most populous nation to the world’s best hockey league. The Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings faced off against each other twice in the last week as they met on Sept. 21st in Shanghai and then again two days later in Beijing. Both games were beamed back to North America and to millions across the host country. The two-game series was part of the NHL’s long-term strategy to reach a new audience in the land which is home to over 1.3 billion people.
China welcomed the games, clinics and marketing events that came as part of the package as the country is committed to expanding ice hockey within its borders along with other types of winter sports before hosing the Olympics. In fact, the government invited the NHL to visit and help promote the sport. Hockey is being developed at the grassroots level across China as more and more children and adults are becoming enamoured with the sport. There were numerous promotional activities and programs throughout the country when the two NHL teams arrived, such as a 21-year-old local goaltender practising on the ice with the Canucks.
The players also enjoyed the trip as it introduced them to a different culture, allowed them to visit historic sites, meet and greet the local fans, and show off their skills to a whole new audience. The last time the NHL visited Asia was when games were held in Japan in 2000. It was the third visit to the land of the Rising Sun as the league also visited in 1997 and 1998. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, there are just over 1,000 registered players in China and 154 indoor rinks throughout the nation. However, it’s believed there are thousands of youngsters involved in the sport unofficially.
With the NHL making the trip it would be assumed that the league will be taking part in the 2022 Olympics, but that remains to be seen. The league has decided to skip the 2018 Games next year in South Korea, but Beijing remains a strong possibility. It also plans more visits to China in the future. As for the two preseason games themselves, The Kings downed the Canucks 5-2 in the first contest in Shanghai with a crowd of 10,088 on hand. Los Angeles also won the second game 4-3 in a shootout in Beijing just less than 48 hours later in front of 12,759 fans.
The two-game series and entire event introduced thousands of new fans to hockey in general and should be considered a success. The future certainly looks bright for the sport in China. Most youngsters appeared to naturally gravitate to it when holding a stick in their hands and trying out their shots and moves on the recently-built ball hockey rinks for the fan-fest events. The NHL Players’ Association and the league will now evaluate the trip and decide how to further promote the sport and the league. But it’s a good bet that future NHL preseason games will be taking place in China on a regular basis now the groundwork has been laid.