NHL China Games: ‘when not if’ for a Chinese hockey star, says commissioner Gary Bettman as sport continues to develop
League will consider regular season games in China as Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames head to Beijing for final preseason match-up
“I don’t think its a question of if, it’s more a question of when,” was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s response to the possibility of a Chinese-born hockey player making a mark in North America.
Bettman was speaking at the Shenzhen Universiade Arena before Saturday’s NHL O.R.G. China Games preseason meeting between the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames.
“There are great athletes that are developing in all sports in China, particularly with the amazingly large population,” he said.
The commissioner stressed that the China Games and broadcast of NHL games on CCTV and Tencent was a part of growing the game, but the “most important thing we can do” is developing grassroots hockey programmes across the country.
“In addition to the games this year we look forward to a variety of initiatives away from the rink intended to entertain and educate generations of Chinese players and fans,” Bettman said.
These were on show outside the arena in Shenzhen as they will be in Beijing in the lead-up to Wednesday’s rematch at the Cadillac Arena.
The Stanley Cup has also been brought over, making its first appearance in China and Hong Kong during this visit.
“We are certain we can help grow the sport here in China,” Bettman said, with clinics and coaching programmes a part of what they have put in place to “increase ability and develop the knowledge of our game while learning the important life skills that hockey delivers”.
“You don’t introduce a new sport to a country overnight,”he said. “You have to do it over the long term and that’s what we’re committed to.”
The signs so far are positive: “I think it’s off to a great start.”
If anything the progress has been surprising.
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) 16 September 2018
“In the practise rink adjoining this building there has been a youth hockey tournament going on for the last few days and the number of young people and families that are knowledgeable about the game is surprising to me.
“That’s only something that’s going to increase as the number of ice surfaces increases.”
With Beijing hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, the number of rinks is sure to increase but Bettman categorically denied there was any pressure from the NHL’s Chinese partners to allow the league’s players to play in the 2022 Games, saying the issue has not been brought up.
The commissioner stood firm on the decision to keep NHL players away from this year’s Games in Pyeongchang because of the disruption to the league season.
However, he did concede the NHL will consider staging regular season games in China in the future.
“I think that at some point we will get to the stage where we will be considering regular season games,” he said, with Chongqing a possible host city when the new stadium is completed.
“Although we haven’t had the full discussions we have to have internally and with the players, I think if it’s going to happen it will probably be at the beginning of the season so we can start things out and get the players back to play their schedule.”
— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) 16 September 2018
Scheduling is the reason why the NHL’s forays into China have been preseason, starting last year with the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings in Shanghai and Beijing.
“It’s obviously easier to deal with the travel issues by scheduling in the preseason and giving the participating teams a little bit of a head start, which is what we’ve been able to do.”
There was demand from the teams to be a part of the China Games, he said.
“Our teams across the board are focused on playing games outside of North America, whether or not preseason or regular season.
“There is no shortage of clubs that are anxious to participate, in part because it’s a great bonding experience for the players and it’s a terrific overall experience for the players.”
It’s something that has pleased the NHL’s partners, too.
“Based on all the feedback we’ve gotten and the meetings I’ve had over the past two days with our partners, they’re thrilled with what they’re seeing.
“We are already talking about what the future holds,” he said. “More and more and more of everything.”