Vancouver Canucks forward Brandon Sutter battles a pair of Los Angeles Kings defenders for puck possession during Thursday's NHL China Games showdown at Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai. The Kings won 5-2, with a rematch set for Saturday afternoon at Wukesong Arena in Beijing. （Photo/China Daily）
World's top pro league ready to offer expertise ahead of 2022 Olympics
The National Hockey League is poised to help China push the world's fastest game into the nation's sports mainstream by 2022.
The inaugural NHL China Games－last night's 5-2 victory by the Los Angeles Kings over the Vancouver Canucks in Shanghai, and tomorrow afternoon's rematch in Beijing－marks the first time the NHL, celebrating its 100th anniversary this season, has played exhibition games in this country.
In the wake of Beijing's successful bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics, hockey is suddenly hot in China. And Kevin Westgarth, the NHL's vice-president of business development and international affairs, considers it perfect timing.
"The support from the government and private industry to grow hockey in China is phenomenal," Westgarth said of the initiatives to build a strong national team ahead of the 2022 Games.
"It's an exciting time to see the pace that things happen here. I think the potential is endless."
The huge crowd for last night's game at Mercedes-Benz Arena, along with the impressive attendance at a fan-friendly event on Wednesday despite the cold autumn drizzle, underlined Westgarth's optimism.
Fans decked out in hockey jerseys mobbed Dustin Brown and Adrian Kempe from the Kings and Bo Horvat and Ander Nilsson from the Canucks, lining up for selfies and autographs on the sidelines of a clinic where youngsters had fun shooting pucks at the teams' mascots.
In a country where the National Basketball Association represents the pinnacle of North American pro sports, the NHL stars are delighted to see they have gained their fair share of attention.
"Going to a country which is not traditionally a big hockey market, it's pretty cool to see a whole bunch of people in the arena who'd never watched the game before. It just created a lot of excitement for us as players," said Brown, the Kings' veteran right winger.
But transforming fan enthusiasm into on-ice success is a different story, and the dream of the Chinese Ice Hockey Association to qualify the national men's team for the 2022 Olympics remains a long shot.
The CIHA currently has only about 200 registered male players, which is nothing compared to the 7,870 registered by the national federation in neighboring Japan.
Ranked No 37 in the world and buried in the International Ice Hockey Federation's obscure third-tier Division II, Team China is pulling out all the stops to improve over the next five years, including a working agreement with Kunlun Red Star, which joined the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League as an expansion team in Beijing last season.
Red Star, which is playing its home games in Shanghai this season, will gradually integrate more homegrown talent onto its roster to form the core of the national squad.
Westgarth, a rugged forward on the Kings' 2012 Stanley Cup-winning roster, said staging annual preseason NHL games in China for the next five years is another way to boost interest.
"It's wonderful to bring the NHL culture and expertise that we have to try to lend a hand in helping shepherd the game in the right way," he said.
"As we learn more after digesting these games, we will be able to crystallize a lot of strategies around how we can invest in serving our new fans and players here.
"I believe 2022 isn't the end of hockey development in China. It's going to be a long-term play, and hopefully we can help build Chinese hockey into something that everybody here feels proud of."