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Volume 23 No. 17
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NHL looks to China as country embraces hockey

Although the NHL hasn’t said whether its players will travel to South Korea for the 2018 Olympics, the league and its teams are all looking toward Asia — to China — for their next big business opportunity.

China’s potential as a hockey market jumped when Chinese President Xi Jinping followed up the country’s selection in 2015 as the 2022 Olympic host by encouraging both investment and participation in winter sports. A team from Beijing joined the Russian KHL last year.

“There is palpable interest in us being there,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, who traveled to China last month to survey the market and see the hockey infrastructure. “The people I met with felt the effort made on our part to travel there and express our commitment to the market was a real step, and there is a real desire to do business with the NHL.”

Sources said the league and the NHLPA will decide in the next few weeks whether to follow the NBA’s lead and hold preseason games in China, this year or perhaps next year. The league has discussed playing at least one preseason game this year in either Beijing or Shanghai, and several teams have expressed interest, with the front-runners being the Los Angeles Kings and the Vancouver Canucks.

A group of Chinese men, some wearing NHL jerseys, plays hockey on a frozen river in Beijing.

Some procedural elements must be checked off first before confirming any games, Daly said.

“It’s an enormous marketplace, and from that perspective alone it has enormous potential,” he said. “In terms of visibility, we’ve had less than the NBA has had there, but that is why having teams going there and playing games would be very important. One of the main keys and reasons why the NBA has been successful there is that they’ve made their game available.”

As the NHL reaches out to China, one Beijing-based company has already aligned itself with the league. ORG Packaging, which designs, develops, manufactures and sells metal packaging projects, became the first Chinese company to sponsor a league event during last year’s World Cup of Hockey, and it has deals with the Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings and Washington Capitals.

ORG Packaging Chairman Zhou Yunjie even played goalkeeper in the NHL’s All-Star Celebrity Shootout, getting peppered with shots by Justin Bieber.

Alongside ORG, the Capitals launched their Hockey is For Everyone month last week, with Zhou and a team of youth players who traveled from China dropping a puck before the team’s game with the Bruins. Last summer, players, alumni and youth hockey players from both the Bruins and Kings organizations traveled to China — visits that were facilitated by Zhou. This summer, the Capitals will do the same.

“Everyone in the entire league, from the league office to the individual teams, is excited about growing the game globally, and we individually feel that responsibility to grow the sport,” said Jim Van Stone, president of business operations and chief commercial officer for Monumental Sports and Entertainment, owner of the Capitals. “There are so many markets around the globe thirsting for hockey, and with deals like this, it allows us to have that global conversation in our own marketplace.”

In addition, the league quietly signed a five-year partnership with Chinese media company Tencent last month that will not only see games being distributed via the company’s digital and mobile platforms, but also help to develop additional digital offerings for the NHL in China, such as interactive games and NHL-specific applications.

“What we’ve talked to them a lot about — and what they do as well as anyone in the market — is promoting their properties,” said David Proper, NHL executive vice president of media and international strategy. “Their plan is really to target the market and not only build our brand, but build theirs through our properties, and there is no better partner in my mind to do that in China.”

Plans call for Tencent to showcase 14 to 17 NHL games a week, as well as build out a hockey studio. The NHL has a deal with Chinese broadcaster CCTV to broadcast games that dates back three years, and last year CCTV announcers called Stanley Cup Final games live from U.S. arenas.

IMG is acting as the NHL’s day-to-day operations consultant as it pertains to China, with SECA serving as its consultant for grassroots activities and marketing. Sponsorship efforts are being handled by the NHL’s in-house staff.

While Daly said the league does not have an exact figure on the market opportunity that China offers, reaching the country can only be a boon to the league.

“By making our games available there in conjunction with the Chinese government being interested in the sport, it could be a perfect storm for us — not only to become relevant, but popular,” he said.