*This article was originally published in Sep. 2021
The Chinese Ice Hockey Association (CIHA) has a goal. They have been expanding in the hockey market for years now and they have set their targets. Behind the Kunlun Red Star hockey club and ahead of the 2022 Beijing Games, the CIHA has seen a rapid growth in the sport in recent years that shows no signs of slowing down – and that’s just how they want it.
It all started prior to the 2016-17 season with the aforementioned Kunlun Red Star joining the Kontinental Hockey League. The plan was to sign Chinese players or ethnic Chinese from superior hockey nations who would then become naturalized citizens. This is not a new plan for nations that find themselves lower on the IIHF World Rankings than they would like, but it is likely the most ambitious as Beijing will host the Winter Olympics in three years and the Chinese expect to medal in at least women’s hockey.
Kunlun Red Star has been working hard in getting more Chinese players in the lineup, with eight players on the roster either from China or with Chinese heritage. That’s up from two just a two and a half years ago. On top of that, they’ve had former NHL players in their lineup, including Wojtek Wolski, Brendon Yip and Adam Cracknell who are currently on the roster. Other former NHL players who have played for the club include Alexei Ponikarovsky, Andrei Kostitsyn and Kyle Chipchura.
Remember, this is just the start. As Kunlun leads the way for hockey in China, team owner Billy Ngok has much bigger plans for the future of the sport in his country.
“I think hockey can be one of our top four sports in China. With continuous growth and continuous effort, I think the women definitely have a chance to one day win a gold medal. With the men we still have a long way to go, but they should be at least among the top clubs in hockey, as a new power in the future, a powerhouse.” (From: “Rise of the Red Dragon” – The Hockey News – n.d.).
While this may seem like a lofty goal, IIHF president Rene Fasel loves the commitment made by Ngok and doesn’t doubt the efforts they plan to make.
“China is very good in that when they decide to do something, they do it. And I love this Canadian approach, ‘We want to be the best in the world.’ But just be better, you know? And it’s so boring not to be challenged. If you’re scared to lose or not to go forward, you go backward and stay home. Maybe go fishing.”
On top of the KHL team, the Kunlun Red Stars also got a team in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) a year later, in 2017-18. With the CWHL folding, the team has moved into the Russian Women’s Hockey League (WHL). Just like the KHL team, the women’s group has brought in stars like Alex Carpenter, while utilizing heritage players.
With China not being afraid to take on the likes of Canada and the USA at the world stage, the sport has made great strides already in order to be a competitive force on the world stage. They show no signs of slowing down as they ramp up a very long process to become a hockey hotbed, a hockey country and a hockey champion.
NHL Assisting in China’s Success
The growth of hockey in China is big not just for the country, but for the NHL as well. Growth of hockey in the largest populated country in the world can only be a good thing for the NHL. It will create more hockey fans, resulting in higher viewership and revenue streams, and create a whole new wave of NHL prospects in the future. Already, there has been a rise in Chinese talent in the NHL.
The first Chinese-born prospect drafted into the NHL is Andong “Misha” Song, drafted 172nd overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders. In fact, Song became an ambassador for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics along with NBA star Yao Ming in 2015 and is now widely known in China. Other notable Chinese decedents’ who have been drafted into the NHL in recent years include Josh Ho-Sang, drafted 28th overall by the Islanders in 2014 and Jett Woo, drafted in 2018 by the Vancouver Canucks 37th overall.
Song is a major success for Chinese hockey, as he was born and raised in Beijing, He will also look to lead Team China at the Olympics on his home soil, which will show the entire country that you can make it to the NHL and to the Olympics in hockey. On top of Song, the NHL is making a big effort to grow the game in China.
O.R.G Series Brought More Chinese Fans
One of the biggest efforts that the NHL has put into growing the game in China are the O.R.G NHL China Games, sponsored by hockey fan and businessman Zhou Yunjie. For the past two seasons, the NHL has played two pre-season games in order to help grow the game in the country. In the first year, the Canucks and the Los Angeles Kings participated, followed up by the Calgary Flames and the Boston Bruins. The NHL isn’t continuing these games in 2019, but has talked about returning in 2020-21.
On top of the games, this year the Stanley Cup also made the trip to China, and the event included a NHL Fan Fest and Hockey Day in Beijing. The NHL has agreed to host preseason games in six of the next eight seasons, as well as donate equipment to help the country develop it’s youth. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said that the NHL is three years into their strategy to build the game of hockey in China, and there is much more to be done.
“For us to make hockey relevant in China it’s more of a two-pronged approach,” Daly said. “It’s a lot different from European markets, where hockey is developed. I think we have to be committed to grassroots youth hockey. We have to work with other parties who are willing to work on that, whether it be the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation), whether it be the KHL, anybody who is interested in building grassroots hockey. But we also think there is some value to bringing the world’s greatest players, the world’s greatest teams there so they can see hockey at its highest level. It’s important to expose our players, our teams in person. The Kings and Canucks laid some groundwork. We want to continue that going forward if not on a year-to-year basis certainly on a frequent basis.”
The 2018 games brought a total of 22,151 fans to the arenas, leaving roughly 15,000 seats empty. This prompted Chinese hockey ambassador Phil Esposito to say that the league “blew it” in the promotion of the game. But, as The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell writes, the numbers are actually very similar to when the NBA first started heading to China. The key for the NHL here, is to capitalize on those who are watching and continue to focus on the long-term growth of the sport.
Daly knows that there is more to be done, “It’s a working process, but we’re really pleased with the progress we’ve made in the three years,”
NHL Legends Helping to Grow the Game
The Chinese government and the CIHA has been making a big push in hockey ever since they were awarded the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. To try and build the game, the Great One was called in. Wayne Gretzky was named a global ambassador to Kunlun Red Star and has been working in China to help hockey grow. He has been working at the grassroots level, running youth development and training programs in Beijing and Shenzhen, with the hope of that expanding to 20 more locations across China.
“The Chinese people have really rallied around hockey,” Gretzky said. “Somebody told me that Game 6 (of the Stanley Cup Final) between [the] Pittsburgh [Penguins] and Nashville [Predators] had 36 million people in China that watched … so it shows you the size of the market in China is pretty amazing.”
“With the people of China hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, we’re trying to give hockey a little bit of a jumpstart, a little bit of a boost,” The Great One continues, “With the NHL here and this country having a team in the KHL, hockey seems to be on the rise and it’s great for everyone.”
With Gretzky putting in work in China, he’s been impressed with the response and the skill that he’s seen already.
“The first thing you notice with kids is if they can skate, and all these kids skate really well. If you can skate well at a young age then you learn everything else about the game, how to handle a pass, how to shoot. Skating is so important, and if you look at all the kids, they all skate really well. The game is a great game and once people get a chance to play it and see it, it’s going to grow on its own. The game today is bigger and better than it’s ever been, and worldwide we’re getting more popular, simple as that.”
Gretzky isn’t the only one working on growing the game. Esposito and Mike Keenan are also ambassadors for the game, and all three are a part of China’s international advisory board. Kunlun’s vice-president and international development director Scotty MacPherson discusses getting these three hockey legends involved in the growth of hockey in China,
“It’s a global effort, people all over the world are coming together to try and grow the game here, and we have great people onboard. Mike Keenan, Phil Esposito, Wayne Gretzky, these are superstars in hockey circles and are absolutely invaluable to grow the sport in China. These guys are experts.” (From: “Rise of the Red Dragon” – The Hockey News – n.d.).
Women’s Hockey a Gold Mine for China
With China’s sights set on getting an Olympic medal, the women’s team is much more likely to do so. The women’s team has already built a foundation to build on, including a fourth-place finish at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, although they’ve dropped in rankings since then. But there’s a lot of hope for the Chinese women’s team. In the 2017-18 season, Kunlun Red Star joined the CWHL, now known as the Shenzen KRS Vanke Rays in the WHL.
Despite being in the CWHL, the team was still based out of China, playing in Shenzen. The move was made to further develop interest in women’s hockey in China, while at the same time growing the CWHL as a global league. The Vanke Rays’ didn’t waste any time in the CWHL either, reaching the 2018 Clarkson Cup Final. The roster included league scoring champion and MVP Kelli Stack and Goaltender of the Year Noora Raty. The success of the team was a great start for the club and for women’s hockey in China.
THW’s own Nathaniel Oliver interviewed women’s hockey great Jennifer Botterill shortly after the announcement that the Red Star’s would be joining the CWHL.
“I think it’s great,” Botterill said. “I think it has been part of a big discussion about the overall development of the game globally. The way I would describe it is that Canada and the US have improved so much, and so have other countries. If you look at that shifting scale – as they have gotten better, so have some of the teams from North America. I think that to see this team from China and knowing that they are taking some strides, it will improve their program leading up to the Olympics.”
The Vanke Rays’ success early on brings a lot of hope to the Chinese women’s team for the upcoming Olympics. Currently, there are eight women on the roster from China, all of whom will likely be on the team that looks to de-throne the Canadian and American women’s hockey giants.
Patience I Key in China’s Hockey Growth
China is going to be competitive in hockey. The sport has already grown exponentially and is continuing to do so. In 2017, roughly 1,000 people were playing hockey. In 2018, that number went up to 12,060. As it becomes more and more popular, more kids will get involved in the sport. The country is investing money into the development of youth and into the teams in both the KHL and CWHL. Having the Chinese-born Song drafted by the Islanders is a huge step forward as well.
Currently, the NBA is the most popular sports league in China. But it didn’t happen overnight. According to the league, over 300 million people in China play basketball. But it took about three decades to get there. It started with former commissioner David Stern getting some television coverage of NBA games in China. By 1994, the NBA Finals were all covered. After Chinese legend Yao Ming was drafted in 2002, the sport blew up in China. All of that on top of sponsorship deals, NBA stores and strategic partnerships have created the following the NBA currently has in China.
The NHL will continue to have a major role in helping to expand the sport of hockey in China. However, for both the country and the NHL, they need to realize that it will take time. China having teams in the KHL and WHL are a great start, and the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will be a huge tell on how far the sport has already come.
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Starting out as an Ottawa Senators contributor for The Hockey Writers, Josh is now an editor and at-large contributor, focusing on prospects, the NHL Draft, hockey history, and breaking news stories.