SHANGHAI — Building on the support for winter sports in China since Beijing won the 2022 Olympics, the NHL is showcasing two preseason games in an attempt to break into a market and country unfamiliar with hockey.
Playing the first NHL game in China, the crowd in Shanghai couldn’t have been treated to a more fast-paced, physical show in the Los Angeles Kings‘ 5-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday. The game was filled with a combined 17 power-play opportunities and 57 shots on goal.
The players were uncertain of the reception, but the crowd proved immediately receptive to the action on the ice.
"Obviously you wanted to put on a show for the fans here and they got to see some goals, too," said Vancouver forward Sven Baertschi, who scored the Canucks’ first goal.
The NHL offered a primer that featured team mascots before the game. An announcer came onto the ice to explain the finer points of the game as Fin (Vancouver’s killer whale) and Bailey (Los Angeles’ lion) mimicked infractions such as charging, crosschecking, tripping and hooking.
A golden Chinese dragon came out next, held aloft on poles by seven skaters. A group of Chinese kids in hockey uniforms joined the NHL players during the Chinese national anthem.
Even if hockey is relatively unknown in China and the rules remain somewhat of a mystery, the crowd appreciated the speed and collisions of the sport.
Every shot on goal was met with a loud cheer and each hard check against the walls was met with a collective ‘Oooh’ or ‘Aaah.’
"To be honest, we didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know the crowd, the noise, the atmosphere," said Los Angeles coach John Stevens. "I think the whole thing for me is we’re here to grow the game. It’s my hope that the more they see it, the more people like it."
Tanner Pearson scored twice for the Kings and Alec Martinez and Jeff Carter each had a goal and an assist. Jonathan Quick made 31 saves.
Team allegiances were generally lacking during the game, with the exception of the Canadian flags and rowdy Canadian fans in the audience.
Spectator Inge Zhang, who was wearing a Miami Heat jersey with pink letters, admitted being more a fan of basketball than hockey. A media co-operation manager for the Shanghai Sharks basketball team, she was excited because she’d heard Kobe Bryant might make an appearance.
"So we came here actually for Kobe Bryant," she said while her friend laughed. "But I love this sport, too."
Bryant did make a brief appearance in a video message to support his hometown team, the Kings.
"I see more foreigners here tonight than Chinese, but I think there are still a lot of hockey fans in China," Zhang added. "I think the NHL should take this opportunity to grow the sport here."
That’s the plan now that the NHL has signed a contract to bring two preseason games to China for six of the next eight years. The Kings and Canucks play their second game in Beijing on Saturday.
"The effort here really is to build from the grassroots up, to try to grow the appreciation for the sport, the understanding of the sport," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said before the game. "We’ve certainly made the Chinese Ice Hockey Federation and the Chinese government aware that we’re willing to help any way we can as they gear up and prepare for the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games."
Despite the positive reaction of the fans to the first game in Shanghai, it’s just the first step in a long process.
"It’s great for China itself to see the NHL live and in-person, see the speed of the game, how good the players are," said Vancouver coach Travis Green. "But whenever you’re bringing hockey to a new country, it’s going to take time. I think it’s great the NHL is committed to doing that."