NHL has lots of work to do before gaining foothold in China

Tim Pearson made the journey to Shanghai and Beijing last week. As part of his executive role with Bauer, he has been charged with exploring China as a market for the giant hockey equipment company.

The fact that his son Tanner Pearson, a left wing fresh off a 24-goal season with the Los Angeles Kings, just happened to be part of the two-game exhibition series between the Kings and the Vancouver Canucks was an added bonus.

What father and son as well as the Kings and Canucks discovered is there still are miles to skate before hockey makes a dint on the sporting scene in China.

“The hockey opportunity is real, but all these initiatives with rinks to be built and youth hockey programs to be developed, has to happen to maximize growth opportunities,” the older Pearson said.

Only 10,088 showed up to watch the Kings’ 5-2 victory in Shanghai last Thursday, and 12,759 were in attendance to see Los Angeles beat Vancouver 4-3 in a shootout in Beijing last Saturday.

Kings edge Canucks in shootout, sweep pre-season series in China0:26

It will be interesting to see where China travels in terms of its hockey chops when the 2022 Olympic Games is held in Beijing. It also will be interesting to see if the International Olympic Committee follows through on its threat not to allow the NHL to participate in the 2022 Winter Games after the NHL decided not to permit its players from competing in the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea this coming February.

Asia is a market the NHL has toyed with before. The Canucks and Anaheim Ducks opened the 1997-98 season with a two-game set in Japan and the game’s best returned a few months later for the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano.

But the league did little after this first step. Meanwhile, 7-foot-6 Yao Ming began his Hall-of-Fame NBA career in 2003 and basketball swiftly became a popular sport in China.

When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman traveled to Beijing last spring to announce the Kings-Canucks exhibition game series, one of the first advertisements he saw when he stepped off the plane was a billboard of NBA superstar Steph Curry, hawking for Samsung.

There are two main players on the fledgling hockey scene in China. First, there is HC Kunlun Red Star, a Russian Kontinental Hockey League club coached by Mike Keenan that is in its second season. Kunlun has several Canadians on its roster, including Gilbert Brule, Kyle Chipchura, Brandon Yip and Geoff Kinrade, all candidates to play for the Canadian Olympic team in Pyeongchang.

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Song Andong, the first China-born hockey player drafted into the NHL, and former NHLer Kevin Westgarth poses with young fans at the NHL Fan Fest in Beijing on Sept. 23. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

The Red Star play in Beijing and it was noticeable last week that the fans there have a little more hockey knowledge as evident by their cheering for a big hit and after-whistle skirmishes.

The other hockey power broker is Chinese billionaire Zhou Yunjie, a pickup-league goalie who made his fortune in manufacturing beer kegs and tin cans for massive companies such as Coca-Cola, Budweiser and Red Bull. His company, O.R.G. Packing, was the presenting sponsor for the two NHL games in China.

Known as Mr. Joe, his O.R.G Packing already has sponsorship deals with the Kings, Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins.

Mr. Joe will be the central figure in the Chinese government’s ambitious plan to construct more than 200 rinks leading up to the 2022 Olympics. Currently, in a country of more than 1.3 billion people, there are just 1,100 registered minor hockey players in China and 6,000 in total paying the game.

Hip Check: China oohs and ahhs over NHL hockey0:45

Tim Pearson did see positive signs like the ball hockey program at the Shanghai Nanyang Model High School. As part of this institution’s curriculum, it prepares students who wish to continue their studies in Canada by introducing them to facets of Canadian culture, including hockey.

“For students in grades 10, 11 and 12 there is an intramural ball hockey program,” Pearson said. “This allows students to get hockey sticks in their hands so they can experience the game first-hand without making a major investment in skating lessons, equipment and coaching.”

But this is only a start.

“The participation level is small right now,” Pearson said. “They need to develop an infrastructure for the game, put some development models into place that the entire country can learn.”

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