China Games leave Canucks playing from behind heading into season

The best thing about the Vancouver Canucks’ pre-season trip to China is that it is nearly over. Well, that, and the airplane.

The star of the trip so far for the Canucks is the Crystal Skye, billed by its cruise-ship owners as the largest, most luxurious charter aircraft in the world. Even for the millionaire player who has everything, the Boeing 777 Crystal Skye is a treat. Typically, its staff includes a sommelier.

The last time Canuck captain Henrik Sedin flew overseas in the pre-season, 17 years ago, he had a middle seat on a commercial flight from Stockholm to Toronto and ate those miniature airline meals that seem designed on a dare.

“I think I did have a middle seat,” Sedin said before leaving for China. “But what I remember is one guy on the staff had a peanut allergy and he almost died on the plane. He couldn’t breathe for a bit, but he was OK.”

Eventually, so were the Canucks.

But flying across oceans and numerous time zones is never ideal preparation for a National Hockey League season. And it is even less ideal than usual for the Canucks who, after consecutive bottom-three finishes, have a new coaching staff, new systems and will probably start this season with seven-to-nine new players on their roster.

In terms of marketing, the China Games are a smart foray by the NHL into a country of 1.4 billion people.

When the Canucks lost 5-2 to the Los Angeles Kings Thursday in Shanghai, they were playing in a metropolitan area of nearly 35 million people. There are 36 million people in Canada.

Alas, there were only about 10,000 fans in the arena, and even some corporate suites were empty.

But there is so much money to be made in China, mountains of loot high enough to obscure little things like the lack of political and religious freedom and a myriad human-rights abuses, that the NHL really can’t lose on its Asian experiment.

The China Games end with a Canucks-Kings sequel Saturday in Beijing, which has a metro population of only 25 million people.

For the Canucks organization, the trip has spillover benefits at home, where Vancouver’s metro area includes about 400,000 ethnic Chinese. The Canucks have quietly been working on their relationship with this market segment, assisting in grassroots hockey clinics in China and building things like “Chinese New Year Night” into their NHL schedule.

It is logical that the league, underwritten in China by sponsors, asked the Canucks and Kings to travel across the Pacific Rim for these games. There were a lot of good reasons for the Canucks to go.

But almost none of them involved actually making their NHL team better for its season opener Oct. 7 against the Edmonton Oilers.

Due to the 15-hour time difference between Beijing and Vancouver, the Canucks arrive home on Saturday.

Everyone will have a day off to sleep — or not — before general manager Jim Benning and head coach Travis Green blend their China roster and the Canucks’ North American roster of mostly younger players into a single group and start practising for final pre-season games next Thursday and Saturday.

But given the ongoing overhaul of the Canuck roster, and the need to refine systems and integrate prospects and six free-agent signings, two games is not a lot of time to get ready. Especially when, as Swedes Hank and Daniel Sedin acknowledge, it takes about seven days to get over trans-ocean jet lag.

“And by the time your body feels good again, it’s probably another three or four,” Daniel said. “Ten days all together.”

“It’s never ideal,” Henrik said. “It’s never ideal to travel in the pre-season. But it’s still early. It would have been worse if we left a week later and got back home only a week before the season starts. You have to look at it this as a positive.”

The Canucks’ younger “second team” plays its third and final game this week under minor-league coach Trent Cull, tonight in Edmonton.

Prospects Brock Boeser and Jake Virtanen have been excellent, but Green has been watching them on a computer screen.

“I try to make sure I don’t worry about too many things I can’t control,” Green said before leaving for China. “How often do you get to go to China to play NHL hockey games? It’s great.

“Is it going to affect us when we get back? I don’t know. We’ll see.”

Benning, who didn’t travel to China because the North American games were more important to the Canucks from an assessment standpoint, said the week-long gap between Vancouver’s final pre-season game and home opener is deliberate.

“That week is to help us get through jet lag and give Travis a whole week to work with the team,” Benning explained. “We’re looking at the positives: It’s a good experience for our players who are over in China. And from a team-building standpoint, they’re getting to spend a lot of time together.

“The other part that turned out to be a positive is the players we left behind to play here, they’re playing in important situations and we’re getting a good look at what they can do. At first, we weren’t sure how this would all go, but it has turned out pretty good.”

They won’t know for sure until October.