NHL's David Proper on the Rise of Ice Hockey in China

By Matthew Bossons, July 24, 2018

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On September 21, 2017, the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League (NHL) hit the ice at Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz Arena. The preseason match was the NHL’s first major foray into the Chinese market, and was followed by another game between the two teams in Beijing two days later.

With a growing interest in winter sports due to the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and Zhangjiakou, China was a rational move for the NHL. In the months since the first pair of China games, the league has announced two more games this fall: between the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames in Shenzhen and Beijing.

china-games-2.jpgImage via NHL

In the lead up to the NHL’s South China debut, we spoke with David Proper, the NHL’s executive vice president of media and international strategy, about the league’s big moves in the Middle Kingdom and hockey’s growth in the country. Mr. Proper also answers the question: when will Lord Stanley’s Cup pay a visit to China?

Give us a bit of background on why the NHL is putting a focus on the China market. 
When Beijing was awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics, the government showed major interest in winter sports; to the point where President Xi and the government said they want 300 million people playing winter sports by 2022.

We assumed, correctly it seems, that there would be a real push to build the necessary facilities for people to participate in these sports. We really offered ourselves up to help build the sport of hockey [in China], offering our expertise to not just the government, but also to other organizations looking to grow the sport. Really, this just follows from our overall goal to build the sport of hockey as best we can and, when that opportunity presented itself in China, it would have been a miss for us not to participate as best we could.

china-games-1.jpg
Image via NHL

The NBA has had massive success in China, what lessons has the NHL taken from basketball’s Middle Kingdom journey?
You know, it’s tricky. We have a lot of friends over at the NBA and we speak with them regularly about doing business in China, but one of the things you can’t forget is that when the NBA went in, there was about 100 years of basketball history in China. So it wasn’t as necessary for them to build up a knowledge base about the sport, while we have to spent a lot of time doing that. 

So the situation is a little bit different. But what the NBA has taught us – and what they’ve been very clear on – is that you have to be very committed to the market, from the grassroots level to the corporate and government level. You also have to be very patient, we have a lot we’re looking to accomplish and this isn’t the kind of thing you can do in a short time. 

A couple years ago, the KHL expanded into China. While positioning an NHL team here would be unrealistic, is there any interest in setting up an affiliate China league to help grow local talent?
I know we’re not at the stage where we have adopted this as a strategy or view this as a strategy. I think our strategy to build hockey in the China market is to support entities based there and that have the infrastructure to build the sport. Whether that is the Chinese Ice Hockey Association, the various city sports bureaus, or Kunlun Red Star or anyone else that wants to grow hockey, we’re here to support them. 

So, if somebody decides that they want to start a league in China, we will be supportive of it and offer expertise, and if one day there is a bigger relationship to be had, then so be it. We’re looking at it like this: we want to help support everyone that wants to grow the sport in China.

bruins-flames-china-games-2.jpg
Image via NHL

Tell us a bit about the grassroots activities in China the NHL is participating in.
We run player clinics for all age groups and we’re going to start doing clinics for coaches. The idea behind this is to get more NHL-type coaches and coaching certifications in China. We also run fan fests around our games and we do a lot of hockey education activities with our partners, to educate the fan base about hockey and the NHL. 

Obviously, we also work with local government agencies that are committed to growing hockey, including our work with the Beijing Sports Bureau to integrate ball hockey into the physical education curriculums of local schools. Of course, there is also the China games, and we do a number of exchanges where we have Chinese youth teams come to North America to participate in activities here with local teams.  

How were last year’s China matches received by players who visited Beijing and Shanghai? Did they enjoy the chance to play overseas in a developing market?
You know, there are two ways to look at it, both of which are positive. The first: you can’t ever underestimate the incredible value of the cultural experience of coming to China. The players got to visit the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Bund and explore Shanghai; they got to do things and see things that are fascinating. When I spoke to the players afterwards they said it was a really wonderful experience for them.

But, on a separate note, our players are the best ambassadors for the sport and they are very giving of their time to help showcase hockey. They love it when they see fans that are learning about the sport, and that was a unique opportunity in China, where a lot of kids came out to see what hockey is about. I think our players had the chance to interact with fans on a new level, with people that don’t really know hockey and want to learn more. It was a special opportunity that they really enjoyed. 

bruins-flames-china-games-6.jpg
Image via NHL

What factors were considered when choosing which teams will come and play in China? Do teams volunteer, or is it left up to random selection?
I can tell you it wasn’t a random draw, it’s never random. Teams were selected due to a combination of things. Obviously, it’s a big undertaking to do these games so we need teams that are committed and have players that are willing to participate. Once we have a list of teams, we then look at which teams will be most interesting to the Chinese market, either due to Chinese immigrants living in particular cities – like Vancouver, or due to the popularity of certain players. We try to put all this together and ultimately, we are very excited about the two teams we have this year, just as we thought the teams last year were a great fit for the China event. 

How far off is the day when we see NHL scouts coming to China to gauge local talent? 
You know, it’s hard to say. The simplest answer is: scouts will go where the players are, in any particular market. That being said, players also tend to go where the scouts are. Often times, a player from outside North America will try to play some junior hockey in Canada or the US so that they can be seen by the scouts. But, I would suggest that over time, as hockey grows and we see larger numbers of Chinese youth playing hockey, the talent level will increase and we will see scouts heading to China. But whether that is five years or 10 years away, that depends on a lot of factors that are outside our control. What I can tell you is [that] as hockey continues to grow and the talent increases, scouts will be there.

bruins-flames-china-games-4.jpg
Image via NHL

Lord Stanley’s Cup has traveled around the world. Has the esteemed trophy ever visited China?
The Cup has not been to China that I am aware of, but it will be soon. Details will be forthcoming; we are working out the specifics, as it’s no small matter to get the Cup to go anywhere, especially when it’s traveling halfway around the world. But we are committed to doing it, and I think you will see the Cup very soon.

Beijing: Sept 19, 7.10pm; RMB162-1,152 (early bird), RMB180-1,280 (regular price). Cadillac ArenaSee event listingTickets
Shenzhen: Sept 15, 2.10pm; RMB78-1,332 (early bird), RMB80-1,480 (regular price). 
Universiade Sports CenterSee event listingTickets.

[Cover image via NHL]

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