NHL legend Gretzky drives league’s ambitions in China

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NHL in China Image: MJR Group Ltd.

After the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) phenomenal success in China over the decades, looks like it’s time for the National Hockey League (NHL) to play catch-up in the Middle Kingdom.

Canadian Ice Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, NHL’s leading career goal scorer, recently flew down to the Chinese city of Shenzhen to open a youth hockey school, on a day that two NHL teams – the Boston Bruins and the Calagry Flames – played an exhibition game at an arena nearby.

“This is wonderful for our sport to branch out, to show people how great our game is,” The New York Times quoted Gretzky as saying.

This is the second year of NHL preseason games in China as part of an agreement, a joint effort of the league and the NHL Players’ Association, to play games here in six of eight consecutive years, according to the Times.

The Bruins and the Flames met for a face off again in Beijing after their Shenzhen clash.

The NHL’s interest in China are a response to President’s Xi Jinping’s vision to have 300 million winter sports enthusiasts in the country ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

If hockey grows in China over the next decade “to a point where it’s not N.B.A. level but something significant, well then we may reassess not just growing the sport but how to build our business,” David Proper, the N.H.L.’s executive vice president of media and international strategy, told the Times in Shenzhen.

Analysts say the league’s China development strategy is loaded with opportunities to attract new fans and talent but also deep uncertainties about what sort of growth is possible, the Times said.

One crucial question is whether the league would allow its players to participate in the 2022 Olympics – and, if not, how the decision would go over with Chinese fans and officials. The NHL said no to the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.

For now, the league has signed broadcasting and live-streaming deals with the Chinese companies CCTV and Tencent, and partnered with several others, including the beer company Tsingtao, the Times reported.

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