Canucks' pre-season China series part of NHL's international push
When Leo Pan read his beloved Vancouver Canucks were coming to Shanghai, he couldn't contain his excitement.
"Where do I get tickets? And when are they released?" he remembered thinking.
Pan was born in China but came to B.C. in 2000. Within a year, he'd fallen in love with hockey and the Canucks "West Coast Express" team that featured Markus Naslund, Brendan Morrison and Todd Bertuzzi.
He returned to China in 2014 and will be among the crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai on Thursday, when the Canucks take on the Los Angeles Kings in the NHL's Chinese debut.
The first in a two-game pre-season series billed as the NHL China games gets underway at 4:30 a.m. PT Thursday before moving north to Beijing for the second meeting, scheduled for 12:30 a.m. PT on Saturday.
"Of course it won't be at the level of Rogers Arena," Pan said of the expected atmosphere. "They're used to watching kids play, not necessarily the professional NHL level."
The series is part of the NHL's push to build hockey's international business and popularity in the sport's largest untapped market, with the league targeting China specifically ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.
Pan says that strategy is working and that Chinese interest in hockey is growing ahead of those Olympics, particularly among young players.
"Compared to when I left … to now, it's amazing," he said.
In China, basketball and soccer are by far the most popular sports. While growing, Chinese hockey remains in its infancy.
Beijing-based Kunlun Red Star, coached by former Canucks bench boss Mike Keenan, joined the Kontinental Hockey League last season.
And in June, Red Star announced it had landed an expansion franchise in the Canadian Women's Hockey League, and was quickly followed by a second Chinese team, the Vanke Rays.
The country's men's team is ranked 37th in the world by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), ahead of North Korea but behind Spain, Israel and Mexico. Its women's team is ranked 18th out of 38 countries by the IIHF.
"It's still a very minor niche," said Pan. "It's a small market."
Big market, big potential
Thursday's game is a first in China, and sports business experts don't expect it to be the last.
"It's all about scale," said Aziz Rajwani, an instructor at the Langara School of Management.
"When you look at the billion plus people in China, even if you can tap into a small percentage of that, it's a big fan base."
Rajwani says the series is primarily about building the NHL's brand in a new market, something he says other leagues like the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball have already pursued for decades.
"China is building a middle class and that's an opportunity for growth," he said.
While the pre-season series is an NHL initiative, it's also a chance for the Canucks to win over new fans.
"If you want to call it ethnic marketing or multicultural marketing, these are the kinds of endeavours the Canucks need to go through to make sure they're tapping into the future fan base."
How those potential fans will react to hockey is another question.
Brady Fox is another Canucks fan who will be at the game in Shanghai on Thursday night.
He'll be going with seven of his co-workers, all of whom have never seen professional hockey before.
"I told them that it was my hometown team and be ready for me to be really excited," said Fox.
"People have a vague understanding of hockey and how it works, but most haven't actually seen a game themselves," he said. "People are really interested to see if there are fights."
He says, much like in the United States, hockey's popularity in China varies greatly by region.
"There's no snow. In a place like this, it's not a natural cold hockey environment," he said of Shanghai.
"[It's] like playing hockey in Los Angeles."
He says the Shanghai game hasn't generated much local publicity, but Beijing will likely have more hockey-savvy fans.
"You should see a more interested crowd there," Fox said of the Beijing game.
He says hockey''s regionalism, coupled with the high cost of equipment, will be major hurdles for the NHL to overcome, but, with continued league support, he says, Chinese fans can be won over, though it might take some time.
"We should probably have tempered expectations as it's their first time there."