NHL poised to skate into China, the next fron­tier

New Straits Times - - Sport -

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

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