NHL China Games, Terrific 12 offer razzmatazz key to cracking China – and a glimpse of what Hong Kong is missing
The city could learn a thing or two from how Shenzhen and Macau are hosting highly-polished sporting events like the NHL and Asia League
There is a collective intake of breath a minute into the first of the NHL China Games in Shenzhen as 10,000 people in the Universiade Arena witness the game’s first big hit. There are plenty more of those as the action unfolds.
Hockey is in China for the second year running and despite it being preseason, the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames are going full tilt.
The only thing they are pulling is punches, with the refs and other players quick to skate in during the few testier moments. As NHL.com’s lead writer Dan Rosen explains to me, “hockey is a game that lends itself to intensity”.
Hockey in the afternoon in a town at China’s southern tip seems incongruous. The 30-odd degree heat doesn’t help but the organisation is confident it should be no different to back home where teams in southern California, Florida, Las Vegas and Nashville prove you can sell ice hockey to places where the only ice is in the cocktails.
The NHL is 100 years old and stages 1,200-plus games every season. That means that they know what they are doing wherever they play, and China proved no exception.
The sports world is looking to China but hockey is a sport that stands a better chance than most to make inroads. Part of that is the intensity but much of it comes from the NHL itself.
Where European football is too fragmented at the top, with a number of different leagues, clubs and players each with their own separate agenda, elite hockey is run by one office and the teams are under their control.
That’s why the Bruins and Flames have followed the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks to China. It is also why the Shenzhen and Beijing games had the full NHL production.
It had a slight China twist, with the team mascots having to explain some of the game’s finer points to the uninitiated.
There were plenty of pre-existing hockey fans, though. The spectrum of jerseys was proof of that, as were the home made signs making fun of opposition players and the number of adults getting giddy with anticipation as they queued for a photo with Lanny McDonald in the fan zone.
That fan zone will have made a few new fans, with an opportunity to test your slap shot, try on goalie gear and test your puck handling skills. As would the merchandise stall churning out caps, tees and player uniforms.
While there were things the NHL would surely have tweaked if everything was under their control – no beer and a lack of transport after the game – everything else was as you’d get in the US or Canada. That’s a refreshing change to some of the half-cocked events that other sports put on in China.
Their hands are often tied, though. A lack of football specific stadiums ruins most football games, while pre- and postseason football doesn’t lend itself to competitive games. As for the Aussie Rules, there’s not many grounds in the country that can even accommodate the pitch.
Hockey is different. The rink can go in almost any arena. It’s a similar story for the NBA and opens up even more of China to their sports.
The NBA roll into the same Shenzhen stadium in October and there’s a good chance that more than 10,000 will turn up. Both sports will offer a decent facsimile of the North American experience.
Just over the water in Macau, the Asia League’s Terrific 12 is doing something similar.
Asia League chief Matt Beyer explained the region-wide preseason tournament is based on the NBA’s Summer League in Las Vegas and that is a comparison for a competition that takes place in Macau’s Studio City.
The Cotai casino’s event centre has the feel of an NBA arena even if the basketball is not at quite the same level.
It’s impressive, as was the music concert they put on featuring some of the biggest names in Asian pop. That’s a level of polish that many sports can only dream of, and a stark contrast to the AFC Champions League game a few hundred yards away.
The rearranged fixture was a triumph for football but lacked the sparkle that the sports coming out of the US, or produced to those standards, have.
It’s sad to think the Hong Kong basketball playoffs, which was impressively packed out with fans, has a high school feel when there’s so much more that can be done.
As more sports head over to try their luck cracking China, that panache might be make or break.
US sports do razzmatazz in a way that would seem cringeworthy if their European counterparts tried to match it. But match it they must, or hockey and hoops or the Beijing-bound UFC could be out of sight in the next few years. Don’t hold your breath on that.