NHL must keep investing in China beyond pre-season games

The Los Angeles Kings blew a 2-0 lead but would eventually make up for it in a shootout as they defeated the Vancouver Canucks 4-3 in the second pre-season game in China between the two clubs.

Both the Los Angeles Kings and the Vancouver Canucks have now left China. The memories? A positive cultural trip for the two groups and, as with most NHL pre-season games on this continent, two rather forgettable games for the new head coaches.

That’s not to be negative about the games in Shanghai and Beijing. That’s purely a reality of the exhibition season in the NHL. Whether the games are in China — or Edmonton, Anaheim, or Calgary — it’s difficult to gauge the success of events based on the quality of play. That said, the second game of the tour was much more fun to watch. There was a Canucks comeback, overtime and a shootout, which ended in a Kings win.

Perhaps the only memorable pre-season games we’ll see are the two Hockeyville games in Belle Vernon, Pa., and O’Leary, P.E.I.

But truly, the NHL experience in China was a start. Nothing more, nothing less. Simply a start.

With more than 10,000 in attendance in Shanghai and 12,000 in Beijing, reaction from the NHL is positive. The league feels the crowds represented numbers comparable to what initial events for sports not native to China drew, including the NBA. This is hopefully the beginning of a very steep learning curve in that country.

As an initial attempt to bring the NHL game to the largest consumer market in the world it was just fine. With that in mind, I suppose the hope is a percentage of the 1.4 billion people will be interested enough to watch another game on TV, or buy a t-shirt, or a sweater, or a hat of their favourite NHL team. The challenge now for the NHL is maintaining some level of presence in China, and help the powers to be (read the Chinese government) to be ready for the Beijing Olympics in 2022.

We’ve seen this plan before. Prior to the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, the NHL played games in that country. You might remember they actually put an ice rink in the Olympic swimming stadium in Tokyo for the teams to play on.

But unlike Japan, the commitment to China has to be bigger and better and longer. Following the games in Nagano, the NHL abandoned putting more games in the Japanese market. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was as simple as the lack of success of both Canada and the United States at the Games, both finished out of the medals. Nevertheless, NHL interest in Japan ended abruptly.

Surely, that can’t happen again.

Investing in China has to be consistent and aggressive and, for the foreseeable future, should grow with the market’s interest in hockey. More games, more teams, more players. Certainly host exhibition games there again next season, and perhaps with four teams rather than two.

Eventually, I’m sure the regular season will start in China, with games that matter, that show the Chinese people the true intensity of the NHL game. And perhaps the NHL will consider sending teams or players at the end of the regular season, just as baseball did for so many years to Japan.

That might be a dream, but it accentuates the point being made. If you’re going to go to China, commit to it. Don’t be half-baked. Don’t expect six days in September to suffice as “growing the game.” Do it, and do it well. And do it beyond 2022. Don’t disappear after the Olympics. If this market is as fertile as many suggest, it means continuing to play games, and create awareness for years — YEARS — to come.

All to often we have seen enthusiastic plans followed by corporate apathy.

That can’t happen this time.