Bruins, Flames set to battle in Shenzhen, Beijing
Get ready for more thrills, spills and chills, China.
Phase two of the National Hockey League's master plan to launch the world's fastest team sport into the nation's mainstream is underway as the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames prepare to clash at Universiade Sports Center in Shenzhen on Saturday and Beijing's Cadillac Arena on Sept 19.
The Stanley Cup - the oldest championship trophy in professional sports－has also made the trip and will be on display at events in the two cities, including at the Great Wall and Hockey Day in Beijing festivities on Sunday.
The preseason games are an integral part of a strategy launched three years ago when a delegation of NHL executives and former players traveled to Beijing to work out plans with the government and local schools to provide the necessary tools to learn the game.
The strategy targets business opportunities that will expand the NHL brand globally while helping grow the game at the request of the government, which is promoting winter sports development in advance of the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
The league has contractually agreed to host preseason games in China in six of the next eight years and to provide coaching and equipment for youth development programs.
This second edition of the China Games represents a homecoming of sorts for the Bruins, who in 2016 signed a five-year partnership with Beijing-based ORG Packaging to help grow hockey here.
Forwards David Pastnak and Matt Beleskey hosted clinics in Beijing in 2016, and Pastrnak returned last year, along with defenseman Torey Krug and goaltender Tuukka Rask. This summer, forwards Danton Heinen and Sean Kuraly and Bruins alumnus PJ Stock spent 10 days in Beijing and Shenzhen.
Last season the Bruins played host to 22 Chinese players from the Beijing Hockey Association, including instructional clinics and games against teams in New England. The exchange program will run through 2021.
Even after the success of the inaugural NHL China Games, which saw the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings play a pair of exhibitions in Beijing and Shanghai last fall, China represents a huge untapped resource for the world's top pro league.
"The way I view it is we're three years into a strategy to build a hockey infrastructure in China," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told NHL.com on Monday.
"For us to make hockey relevant in China, it's more of a two-pronged approach. I think we have to be committed to grassroots youth hockey. We also have to work with other parties who are willing to do that, whether it's the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation), the KHL (Russia's Kontinental Hockey League) or anyone else who is interested in building the game from the grassroots.
"We also think there's some value to bringing the world's best players and the world's greatest teams to China so fans there can see hockey at its highest level."
It's likely the NHL will establish a satellite office in China within the next two years.
"If we continue to grow, I don't think we can avoid the fact that ultimately we're going to have to have employees on the ground in China," Daly said.
"I don't know if that's next year or the year after, but if we're continuing to grow, we need a permanent presence."
The deputy commissioner added that several teams have inquired about being part of future NHL China Games.
"In some respects, it's asking the clubs to essentially give up half of their training camp and bring their best players halfway around the world to play two exhibition games, but clubs that have a big-picture vision of what it could mean for the sport globally, what it could mean for our business globally, are definitely willing to do that," he said.