NHL grappling with China dilemma as preseason rumor links Canucks and Kings

By Mark Dreyer Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/6 23:58:39

The lure of the Chinese market appears to be irresistible for yet another international sports league.

Reports from North America last week claimed that the National Hockey League (NHL) is looking at playing a preseason game in either Beijing or Shanghai next year, potentially between the Vancouver Canucks and the Los ­Angeles Kings.

Amid the buildup to the 2022 Beijing Olympics and China's concerted winter sports push, however, there is no shortage of NHL teams who would be interested in showcasing their roster of stars to a growing audience.

The potential of China's massive population has long been a huge draw, but questions remain as to exactly how quickly that audience is growing.

Russia's pro league, the KHL, added a Chinese team earlier this year, but after a successful debut in Beijing, logistical reasons forced the team to move down to Shanghai, where attendances dropped to well under 1,000.

That's very different to what had  previously been predicted in ­Russia about Beijing's team, Kunlun Red Star, having the potential to be the biggest in the league, given its home at the 18,000-seater LeSports Arena.

The team has now - finally - returned to Beijing and you can be sure league officials will be keeping a close eye on how many locals turn up to watch games.

Suffice to say, launching a team and then immediately playing home games in a city 1,300 kilometers away is not the best way to build a loyal, local fanbase, many of whom are still trying to get to grips with the intricacies of the sport.

The NHL has been playing overseas games since 1938, but, outside of ­Japan, the Asian market has been largely untapped. With the next two Winter ­Olympics being held in South Korea and China, however, the league has no ­option but to look east - despite reports out of head office that it may skip the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang.

Hosting an Olympics doesn't guarantee qualification for China, which currently faces a race against time to turn a small, but promising, crop of young players into a side that is at least respectable on the world stage.

The NFL's successful advances in London in recent years has made all sports leagues reconsider their overseas options, but only the NBA thus far has truly made a splash in China - and much, though not all, of that can be attributed to the one-in-a-lifetime talent that is Yao Ming. One way or another, though, ice hockey is coming to China. The question is - will the Chinese care?

The author is a Beijing-based freelance writer. dreyermark@gmail.com


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