NHL poised to skate into China, the next frontier
BEIJING: When Andong Song started playing hockey in China at age six, 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.
This week, Bettman is expected to announce NHL preseason games in China between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, along with grassroots programmes 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 218 Olympics in neighboring South Korea.
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.
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. AP