SHANGHAI (AP) — As the Vancouver Canucks held their first practice in Shanghai before their exhibition game with the Los Angeles Kings, a dense fog settled over the ice. The humidity in the arena was high and the players could barely see the puck.
Large dehumidifiers were rolled in and the mist eventually cleared, but the NHL has perhaps a bigger visibility problem in China — a country with little tradition of winter sports, hockey included. The league is hoping to turn that around with a major push in the country, beginning with its first two preseason games between the Canucks and Kings in Shanghai and Beijing this week.
The timing couldn't be better for the NHL. With Beijing set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the government is putting a massive emphasis on developing winter sports. Hockey training programs and youth leagues are expanding across China, and the nation's first professional team, the Kunlun Red Star, plays in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.
With interest on the rise, the NHL believes it now has an opportunity to crack a market that has traditionally been more fixated on basketball and soccer.
"You don't quite know what to expect the first time the game is coming here, but I've always believed that hockey is a game you need to see live," Los Angeles Kings coach John Stevens said after Wednesday's practice. "And once you see it live, you become hooked as a fan."
A glance at the numbers shows just how far the NHL has to go. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China has just 1,101 registered players, compared with nearly 556,000 in the U.S. and more than 631,000 in Canada.
And the fan base in a nation of more than 1.2 billion people is still in its infancy. On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, the NHL has just 47,000 followers, some of whom are obviously new to the sport. (One posted a question about the temperature of the arena and what was suitable to wear to the game.) The NBA, which hosted its first preseason exhibition games in China in 2004, boasts more than 33 million followers on Weibo.
"We're learning a lot about how to market here and we're learning a lot about how tickets are sold," says David Proper, the NHL's executive vice president of media and international strategy. "We're just viewing this as Year 1 of a multi-year project and in Year 1 we may not knock it out of the park . but we can still build over time."
Media exposure certainly helps. State broadcaster CCTV now televises five games per week to Chinese audiences and the Internet giant Tencent streams 14 games per week on its digital platforms, including the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The NHL also has an influential partner on the ground in Zhou Yunjie, the billionaire founder of a Chinese drinks packaging company who has devoted significant time and resources to building the game he fell in love with as a youth in Beijing. Zhou's company, ORG Packaging, is the presenting partner for this week's exhibition games.
"Hockey was actually quite common in northern China back in the '60s and '70s, so there is a foundation among the kids in those areas," Zhou told The Associated Press at his company's newly opened hockey training base in a Beijing suburb, which includes a fully stocked gym, physical therapy room and a hotel for players attending training camps.
Zhou said China's hockey revival should focus on both universities and a professional league, using the North American, northern European and Russian systems as models.
"It will take time before ice hockey really becomes like a religion with young people as it is in the West," he said. "But ice hockey will definitely catch on with lots of kids."
One thing that will certainly help is developing a home-grown star similar to Yao Ming in basketball and Li Na in tennis. There are promising signs on this front, too.
Song Andong became the first China-born player to be drafted in the NHL two years ago, selected by the New York Islanders. The 20-year-old Song has committed to play at Cornell this season.
On Monday, the Vancouver Canucks signed 21-year-old Sun Zehao to an amateur tryout contract to serve as the team's third goaltender for the China preseason games.
"He's working with our goalie coach," Vancouver coach Travis Green said. "He liked how quick (Sun) was, how competitive he was. . I just think it's a great experience for him."
The NHL should also get a boost in China as excitement builds for the 2022 Olympics. The league angered its players by deciding not to interrupt its season to allow them to take part in the 2018 Games in South Korea in February. That stance may change for 2022 in the much larger Chinese market.
To some, skipping the Pyeongchang Olympics is a missed opportunity to gain a bigger foothold in China.
"With 2022 coming up, winter sports are taking the leading focus of all sports in China right now — more so than football," said Mark Dreyer, founder of the China Sports Insider website. "They'll be promoting the Korea Olympics more than ever before."
For now, the league is focused on taking its first baby steps in China, giving spectators in Shanghai and Beijing a good show.
"It's going to be pretty cool, especially for people who have never really experienced it before," Kings forward Tanner Pearson said. "It's going to hopefully start something good here."
Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen contributed to this report from Beijing.
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