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Players attend a training session during an event of NHL in Beijing, China, March 30, 2017. (CHINA STRINGER NETWORK/REUTERS)
Players attend a training session during an event of NHL in Beijing, China, March 30, 2017. (CHINA STRINGER NETWORK/REUTERS)

Hockey comes to Beijing, with Bettman, a billionaire and Beckham Add to ...

This is what it takes to assemble a historic day for the National Hockey League in China: the league commissioner admirably twisting his tongue around a Mandarin greeting, a Chinese billionaire who regularly suits up in goalie gear, government officials in drab suits, a group of under-12 local hockey players with parents willing to sneak them out of school for a day to skate with hockey royalty – and guest appearances by David Beckham and Kobe Bryant.

“The L.A. Kings is my favourite hockey team,” a videotaped Mr. Beckham said Thursday, his words dubbed into Mandarin and projected from a centre-ice screen at a Beijing arena where the NHL came to kickstart an effort to find new audiences and players in the world’s second-largest economy. “I hope you will welcome their arrival as warmly as you welcomed me a couple of years ago,” Mr. Bryant added. “Enjoy the game.”

Read more: The man behind the push to bring the NHL to China

In September, the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings will meet for a pair of preseason matches in Beijing and Shanghai, marking what commissioner Gary Bettman called “the formal launch of what we hope will be a long and successful collaboration between our league, our teams and our partners in accelerating the development of hockey in China.”

But as the appearances by Mr. Beckham and Mr. Bryant made clear, hockey needs all the help it can get here.

In China, “even Wayne Gretzky, no one knows who he is,” said Brandon Chemers, a Beijing-based sportswriter. “So having a guy like Kobe say, ‘Hey, it’s okay, check it out’ — it sort of has more value than if it was a star hockey player. But it’s just weird.”

Moments after the former Lakers’ star’s appearance Thursday, the NHL rolled a promotional video for ORG Packaging, the league’s strategic partner in China that is run by billionaire Zhou Yunjie, who began goaltending as a teen. It inter-spliced footage of the Great Wall and the Boston Bruins, set to the pumping tune of Hall of Fame: “You could be the greatest / You can be the best / You can be the King Kong banging on your chest.”

It is surely not the last time the NHL will find itself in a strange position in China where, after years of watching other leagues chase viewers and dollars, it is now pledging to stay for the long term.

“It’s very definitely at the first stages,” Canucks president Trevor Linden said. “And that’s exciting as well. They have so much potential, so much opportunity.”

The league may not possess a Yao Ming-like star to drive millions of Chinese people into its arms. But the NHL has the most powerful man in China, President Xi Jinping, who is overseeing a nationwide pursuit of winter sports participation ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2022 – and who, it is widely believed, has a personal fondness for hockey.

“He’s behind this, and when he gets behind things the country moves in that direction pretty quickly,” said Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based sports analyst who runs the Sports Insider website.

“There’s actually a lot of indications that the government is moving away from soccer at the moment, and making winter sports its No. 1 priority within the sports industry.”

The NHL’s “timing clearly works,” he said.

The league has already had a taste of what’s possible. For the past few years, state-run broadcaster CCTV has televised five regular season games a week. The local population is so vast that, even with only a small percentage tuning in, the Chinese audience regularly beats North American viewership for those games.

The league has also signed a five-year online streaming deal with Tencent. The Chinese tech giant has said that for some games “10 million people watch,” said Luc Robitaille, president of business operations for the Kings.

“When you’re in China they don’t think it’s big. We think it’s astronomical.”

Precise numbers in China are rarely trustworthy, but even an audience a quarter that big would suggest the NHL has reason for optimism.

“The most important thing that we should focus on now is helping them grow the game,” Mr. Robitaille said. “All of us should have alumni come in. We should have some of our players come in the summer.”

If that includes a team effort to promote the sport, the Kings are also aware that no one can yet claim to be China’s team, a position that could prove lucrative. “Whoever is willing to work the hardest, their brand is going to be out there,” Mr. Robitaille said.

The opening honours this September will go to the Kings and Canucks for reasons of ownership and fan base: LA Kings is owned by AEG, which also runs an arena in Shanghai where one game will take place, while the Vancouver area is full of people with connections to China.

No one doubts the size of the prize if they can succeed.

“It’s China, that’s why everyone comes,” Mr. Dreyer said. “It’s a numbers play. You just need that 1 per cent.”

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