How the NHL Is Working to Give Hockey a Grassroots Presence in China

By Alex Prewitt ,

Earlier this year, the NHL quietly made a pair of small but significant moves to grow its presence in hockey’s most intriguing market. The first was the hiring of Sandy Ma Yun, a veteran executive of the Chinese auto and motorsports industries, as director of international strategy and the league’s only full-time employee based in Asia. The other was the opening of a new satellite office space at a Beijing business park, also a continental first. There are plans for further expansion, if not in real estate then definitely in staff size, though not quite yet.

“One step at a time,” commissioner Gary Bettman says. “We didn’t have an office. We do now, and it now has one full-time employee, and we’re going to build off that.”

The mind can wander, decades down the road, imagining what could be possible if hockey takes hold in China. Between its steadily growing economy and massive population—the city of Shanghai alone claims more than 24 million people, or approximately two-thirds of Canada’s entire residency—the country has understandably become a core focus of the NHL’s overseas strategy. “In some respects,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly says, “the sky is the limit, right?”

On the ground, progress has been gradual but encouraging. A pair of exhibition games between Calgary and Boston last season, held in Beijing and Shenzhen, drew 28 million viewers on the state-run CCTV, according to Daly, and ticket sales increased 50% from those at the inaugural NHL China Games in 2017. Over the past year, the league’s account on the ubiquitous social media network Weibo has also gone from fewer than 200,000 followers to more than 1 million, part of a larger visibility push that included a broadcast partnership with tech giant Tencent.

The annual preseason slate was forsaken this fall thanks to an extremely Only-in-China reason: Every suitable venue was already booked for celebrations around the 70th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s rise to power as chairman of the Communist Party. Instead, perhaps in a form of compensation, the NHL dispatched its first active player “ambassador” last month for a series of youth clinics, autograph sessions, arena tours and one toboggan ride down the Great Wall. “First of all, it was lots of people over there,” Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin summarized upon returning to the U.S. “It’s great for hockey. Great for business to move there.”

Ovechkin is not the only legend helping out, either. Jaromir Jagr was recently chosen as the face of the ice hockey tournament at the 2022 Winter Olympics, where China will receive automatic men’s and women’s bids as host. And Wayne Gretzky has lent his celebrity as a representative for Kunlun Red Star, the lone Chinese team in the KHL. “As we’ve tracked the trajectory of other sports, based on how long we’ve been there,” Bettman says, “we’re actually moving at a pretty good clip … We’re playing on a fairly large, but not-yet-painted canvas.”

Generating eyeballs and clicks from new fans is just part of the NHL’s strategy, though. As Daly puts it, “Obviously I think there’s a number of Chinese nationals who have become elite hockey players, but most of those transferred to a different country at a formative stage of their development. The long-term goal would be to develop hockey in China to the point where they can develop their own hockey players, through at least late teenage years, in the relatively near future.” In a country that has been part of the International Ice Hockey Federation since 1963 yet lists just 2,764 registered skaters—about two hundred-millionths of its total population—creating a stable grassroots presence represents an entirely different, more daunting challenge.

A challenge that is best explained by visiting Crab Island.

***

“Nǐ hǎo. Hi guys, hi guys. What’s going on?”

Passing a group of his players in the hallway, Todd Elik waves and continues our tour. It’s a weekday afternoon in mid-March, an hour before practice for the Beijing Jr. Kings, the country’s only NHL-affiliated youth hockey program. As head coach and general manager for their inaugural season in ‘18–19, Elik is a unique figure for many reasons. Like his living arrangements: He and his wife Hėlėne share a single-room apartment upstairs in the ice rink at Xièdǎo Resort, an amusement park/fake beach complex whose name translates to Crab Island.

The arena is plenty nice, dotted with glass display cases of random nostalgic hockey memorabilia—Dit Clapper’s jersey! Pat Quinn’s skates!—and stocked with state-of-the-art fitness equipment for its flagship tenant, a franchise in Russia’s second-tier pro league owned by the Chinese packaging conglomerate, O.R.G. (The Eliks particularly enjoy the gym and sauna.) A few figure skaters are twirling on the far end of the ice as we walk through, but they are shadows; the house lights don’t switch on until 4 p.m. to conserve energy.

“It’s like a ghost town,” Elik says. “Nobody’s ever here.”

Changing that is the goal. NHL teams have been making overtures to China since 2005, when late Islanders owner Charles Wang started a hockey development program called Project Hope in the Heilongjiang province to provide equipment and refurbish rinks. Various others such as the Bruins, Canadiens and Maple Leafs have followed suit, hosting ice and ball hockey clinics for aspiring players and coaches. But none had kept a year-round presence until the Beijing Jr. Kings were founded.

Spinning off their experience as participants in the 2017 China Games, looking to stake a stronger place in the market before the Olympics, the L.A. Kings could’ve signed a couple sponsorship agreements and called it a day. Instead, they partnered with O.R.G., settled on Crab Island as the home rink, and began searching for someone to run the whole operation. As it happened, Kings president and Hall-of-Fame winger Luc Robitaille knew that one of his former linemates was looking to get back into hockey, and thought that he would be perfect for the job.

A former NHL center who logged 448 regular-season games in the ‘90s, including two seasons with the Kings, the 52-year-old Elik had been working as a laborer in Regina, Sask., when he heard from Robitaille about Beijing. It took some convincing to get Hėlėne onboard, but the money was solid and part-time junior-B coaching gigs weren’t scratching Elik’s itch on the ice. Besides, where else could he find an adventure like this?

After a couple days of training in Los Angeles, which included lessons on both the Kings’ youth hockey development model and Chinese customs, Elik flew to Shanghai for visa processing before arriving at O.R.G. Arena and Crab Island in July 2018. On the first day of signups, a single skater registered. “If we have one,” Elik declared, “we’re opening.” His persistence was soon rewarded. Thanks to mostly word-of-mouth advertising, some 30 children attended an open tryout and about half committed to the program. Pretty soon Elik and assistant coach Mitch O’Keefe, an ex-minor league goalie, were overseeing full practices, light conditioning drills, and locker room chalk talk for 32 total players in the under-6, under-7/8 and under-9/10 age groups.

“The whole goal, the number-one goal, was to get the program going,” Elik says, watching from the bleachers as a group of his players belt pucks into a dry-land shooting tarp. “Just get it running, get it going? We’re very proud of that.”

It has been a challenging experience at times, mostly due to language barriers—a dedicated translator helps Elik communicate with players and parents—but rewarding nonetheless. The Stanley Cup visited in August 2018, which Elik cites as a highlight if only because of the looks on the kids’ faces as they learned about its history. The team also flew to L.A. last February for a week of honored-guest activities with the Kings and their AHL affiliate, featuring locker room tours, on-ice sessions, and intermission Zamboni rides at everyone’s first NHL game. Living at the rink hasn’t been so bad either; the heart of Beijing is only a cheap cab away.

On the ice, the Jr. Kings spent the 2018–19 season competing in the B-flight of the Beijing Hockey Association, though their schedule was only six games long. Elik has been trying to schedule scrimmages with rival programs, anything to supplement the three days of ice time that they get each week, nowhere near enough in his eyes. “Kids need to develop,” he says.

It might be years before China can achieve the dream that Daly laid out, producing pro hockey players on par with other international powerhouses. Even so, Elik cannot help but consider what strong youth programs—such as the Jr. Kings, if his vision comes true—might one day produce. A competitive Olympic team? An NHL star? “I’d love to help change that,” Elik says, heading into the coaches’ locker room to lace up for practice. “F---, that’d be huge.”

***

Soon after the Olympics were awarded to Beijing in 2015, the Chinese government unveiled an ambitious plan to construct 650 new skating rinks over the ensuing decade. (Lest you doubt its industrial capacity, consider that O.R.G. Arena at Xiedao Resort was built in three months.) It was part of a larger commitment to rocketboost China’s interest in winter sports, a goal fueled by both competitive—China has only won 13 gold medals at the Winter Games, one behind Japan for 17th all-time—and economic desires. As the Great Eight put it, getting involved in China is great for business.

To learn from the ideal scenario, the NHL needn’t travel far; its new Beijing office shares an address with the headquarters of NBA China, which houses some 200 employees. (“We don’t even have 200 employees in Toronto,” says Daly.) But basketball has a massive head start on hockey. Missionaries dispatched from Springfield, Mass., bearing Dr. James Naismith’s new game as a shining example of their “muscular Christianity,” arrived in Tianjin only a few years after the first peach basket was hung. In 1936, China competed when basketball debuted as an Olympic medal sport. Outdoor courts are omnipresent today, including on the grounds of the Forbidden City, outside the bunkhouses where young soldiers sleep.

Hockey wasn’t too far behind in terms of first contact, but the sport spent decades mostly confined to northeast regions near Russia until interest recently began spreading. All of which makes catching basketball in popularity seem like an impossible benchmark—as a measure of comparison, the NBA account on Weibo is nearing 42 million followers—that the NHL doesn’t even pretend to pursue. And besides, carving out even a small chunk of the Chinese market could make a big difference. “I applaud the NBA. They have an enormous business over there,” Daly says. “On some levels we can learn from what they’ve done. But the nature of our sport in that country is different than theirs. There’s not the same history, obviously, in hockey. In some respects, we have the same challenges. In some respects, we have different ones.”

Asked for the biggest of these obstacles, Daly quickly replies: “It’s clearly infrastructure. I don't think they have a traditional hockey infrastructure over there. I’m talking about ice, rinks, a hockey culture, tradition, history. So those are all things that have to be developed over time. You do that in a careful, slow and patient way. You do it through working at the grassroots level. One school or school system at a time, just exposing the game to more and more people.”

***

Over the summer, I messaged Elik on WeChat, the Chinese messaging app, to see how the offseason was going. He explained that both he and O’Keefe had departed the Jr. Kings as the program decided to overhaul its coaching staff. “Mutual agreement,” Elik wrote. “Life goes on.”

Indeed, while Elik soon headed back home to Canada and found work behind the bench of a junior-A program, another one of Robitaille’s former L.A. teammates took charge. Tim Watters had been living in Phoenix, coaching youth and high school hockey on the side while working in commercial real estate, when an email went out to Kings alumni earlier this year, seeking an assistant coach behind Elik. Aside from the NHL’s China Games and the looming Olympics, Watters knew “nothing” about the state of Chinese hockey at the time. “But it’s a huge country with a billion people,” he says. “A fraction playing hockey would be an incredible feat.”

The obvious, most helpful method for jumpstarting growth would involve the emergence of “the skating equivalent of Yao Ming,” in Bettman’s words—if not the first China-born player to crack the NHL then its first homegrown star. (Only one has been drafted: Beijing native Andong Song, a defenseman who moved to Ottawa at age 10, went 172nd overall to the Islanders in 2015, and now plays at Cornell.) “I would certainly be surprised if not within the next five years, that we have a Chinese national in the league, playing important roles for NHL clubs,” Daly says.

But what is the replicable path? The country thus far lacks central governing bodies for the sport—either at a national level like USA Hockey, or regionally such as state associations and both youth and school leagues are relatively scarce, even in major cities like Beijing. According to Watters and Elik, most of the Jr. Kings players learned how to skate and stickhandle from taking private lessons before enrolling, but possessed little experience in team environments. “I think that’s probably the biggest challenge, teaching the team play and how to work together,” Watters says. “It’s an uphill battle a little bit, based on what’s in place in China.”

As Daly sees things, the Olympics represent a “jumping-off point to see where we are,” regardless of whether NHL players are ultimately allowed to participate. “The more important question for us is how relevant and popular, relatively speaking, is hockey by the time the 2022 Games come and go?” he says. It would be hard to imagine the NHL passing on the marketing opportunities that would come with showcasing its best talent in Beijing, but the hope is that hockey is already humming by then. “Nothing would please me more than to see us help with that development,” Watters says. “I think that, to me, would be a success, to get this ball rolling and watch it snowball, because when it does catch on, the potential is enormous.”

For now, the signs of progress are small but significant. Earlier this month, the Dallas Stars partnered with the Beijing Shougang Hockey Club to send staffers abroad for pre-Olympics coaching sessions. (They also became the fifth NHL team to start a Weibo account.) The league, meanwhile, is still contractually obligated to hold exhibitions in China in four of the next five years—the 2020 participants could be announced as soon as this fall—and a regular season game doesn’t appear far down the road. “I can’t say it’s on the drawing table yet,” Daly says of that notion. “But obviously the progression of what we want to accomplish there, yes.”

The Jr. Kings are making similar headway. In a WeChat message, Watters happily reports that enrollment has increased to 39 full-time youth players for the 2019–20 season, enough to form four teams: two in the 10-and-under age group, plus one apiece in 8U and 12U. More than two dozen other kids are participating under "Jr. King timecards," attending practice when they can without committing to games. Watters and his new staff—assistant coach Hannah Westbrook and goalie coach Nick Lehr—have also agreed to help oversee three school teams, which he hopes will become feeder programs to the Jr. Kings. Then there are the on-ice details that would please any coach: a well- executed drill, a smooth breakout, an especially competitive puck battle ... “We’re not missing a beat,” Watters writes. “We’re getting after it.”

The enthusiasm makes me think about a moment from my visit, not long after the Jr. Kings took the ice for practice. Elik was explaining a simple passing-and-shooting drill when a pair of kids began jostling for position in one of the lines. First they exchanged words, then shoves, then finally some swings of their sticks. It could’ve been any rink in any hockey hotbed, from Detroit to Stockholm, Moscow to Manitoba. While Elik tended to the tiff, O’Keefe skated my way.

“They got the fighting spirit, eh?” he said, as the drill finally started and practice resumed. 

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