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Kunlun Red Star's Rudi Ying, left, and Alexei Ponikarovsky sit on the bench during the Kontinental Hockey League match between Spartak and Kunlun Red Star, in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016. (Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press)
Kunlun Red Star's Rudi Ying, left, and Alexei Ponikarovsky sit on the bench during the Kontinental Hockey League match between Spartak and Kunlun Red Star, in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016. (Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press)

The challenge of building an audience for China’s first pro hockey team Add to ...

Liu Wendong does not care that the arena is mostly empty. He doesn’t care that he has come to cheer a team that shouldn’t even be here. He doesn’t care that this is not so much a sport as the plaything of billionaires or that the Chinese managers of the first Kontinental Hockey League team in China know almost nothing about the game – save that it supplies the kind of brutish spectacle that might, some day, appeal to a local audience.

All Liu wants is to make enough noise to propel his team onward.

“Kunlun!” the announcer at the Shanghai arena chants. “Red Star!” screams back the twentysomething Liu, a speed skater who now coaches hockey, waving the only flag on display in the stands.

“I’m their No. 1 fan!” he says with a smile.

When Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia attended the signing ceremony for Kunlun Red Star in June, they heralded a new era of professional hockey in China, one that promised to transform the world’s most populous nation into the game’s biggest fan base.

Since then, the team has had surprising success on the ice, but a stream of indignities off the ice.

Unable to find suitable ice time in its home city of Beijing, Red Star has played all but one of its home games in Shanghai. Neither its cheerleaders nor many of the media who cover it have ever watched a game before. Management has struggled with the basics of equipping its players, who have gone so short on sticks that they have been forced to traipse around cities such as St. Petersburg during away games to buy their own.

Currency confusion means many players are getting paid in yuan rather than U.S. dollars, leaving bank accounts filled with a controlled currency they don’t know how to get out of China. And the team’s biggest appearance on the international stage was the embarrassing spectacle in September of a local man tossing the puck onto the ice with a frightened fling that The Hockey News dubbed “the most awkward ceremonial puck drop ever.”

The team has plumbed new depths for empty seats in the KHL and is losing money badly on the $40-million (U.S.) it costs to run a season.

It’s not clear anyone really cares – at least not for now. The team is hockey’s moon mission: an expensive attempt to do something no one else has accomplished.

The Kunlun Red Star hockey club was born of a deal struck between Chinese oil and gas investor Billy Ngok Yan-yu and Gennady Timchenko, the Russian energy-trading billionaire who chairs the board of the KHL in addition to owning its top team, SKA Saint Petersburg.

Yu wanted to do business with Timchenko, says Ying Da, a Chinese director and actor whose son Rudi plays for Red Star. The Russian oligarch said, “Fine. But I want you to set up a hockey club there in China.”

Yu “at the time didn’t know what hockey was. But he said, ‘Yes, definitely,’” says Ying, who watches games from a VIP area with the team’s top management.

For his part, Timchenko brought not only hockey knowledge but political connections of the highest order. He is one of Putin’s confidants, and the Russian President in turn has a budding autocrat’s camaraderie with the Chinese President. So two of the world’s most powerful leaders witnessed the signing ceremony “for a team that has 1,000 people watch it if they’re lucky,” says Mark Simon, a well-connected Canadian who coaches hockey in Beijing.

At a recent game in Shanghai, Red Star reported about 800 ticket sales. The stands looked well short of that figure. The team had given away a large number of tickets, and some fans had pockets filled with unused passes.

No matter. The Chinese are playing the long game. Beijing will host the Winter Olympics in 2022, and the country’s leaders want as many medals as they can get. Red Star has skated several Chinese players alongside the Swedes, Finns, Russians and Canadians on its roster. Maybe, says team chief executive officer Emma Liao, the Chinese men can even make the top 12 at the Games.

“With our help, the entire culture of the hockey industry can be very different,” she says.

How many of the management team can skate? “Not many,” says Liao, who previously worked in private equity, managing international mergers and acquisitions. “The entire team, including myself, is from an investment finance background.”

But they want to “charm” China with hockey, she says, launching into an MBA-style explanation of how the team provides an entertainment product for a rising Chinese middle class with time on its hands and an appetite for something new and Western – without the complicated rules of, say, American football.

“It’s a high-contact sport, which is liked by Chinese audiences as well. And it’s easier to understand,” Liao says. Look at the $4-billion (U.S.) offer by a Chinese group for Ultimate Fighting Championship. “Chinese audiences like intense sports,” she says.

Take one boy at a recent game: “Hit them 30 times! Kick them 30 times!” he yelled from behind the bench in Chinese. Elsewhere, 10-year-old Zhang Zi’an pointed to his favourite player, Slovak winger Tomas Marcinko. “He has such a bad temper! And he loves hitting other people!”

If skating and stickhandling won’t bring the crowds, maybe violence will.

Of course, they could come for the winning. Red Star has a .500 record and has spent most of the season in a playoff spot. Its players have shaken off 10-hour flights, six-hour time changes and the unfamiliarity of roast duck and chopsticks to play some remarkable hockey.

“Before coming over here, I’d never left North America in my life, so I’ve never been jet-lagged,” says Brett Bellemore, a defenceman from Windsor, Ont. “It took me quite some time to get used to being deprived of all this sleep. And all of a sudden it’s, ‘Hey, I’m exhausted, but I have to play.’”

“I think we’ve exceeded expectations so far,” says Saskatoon-born centre Sean Collins. “We’re setting the bar pretty high here, and hopefully we continue to build off the first half.”

Ying, meanwhile, is looking to solve the fan issue. He is calling his connections in the entertainment business, asking friends in the media to cover games and get scores on the radio. He has also convened an unusual brain trust, which includes Simon, to come up with solutions.

Ticketing has been a “mess,” Simon says. The game-day experience is “horrible.” At a recent game, food and beverages were sold from a small table that included three Snickers bars and three plastic cups of caramel popcorn.

“It can work,” Simon says. “It just has to be better.”

There is reason for optimism. After its long sojourn in Shanghai, the team returned to Beijing on Dec. 12. The Chinese capital has far more hockey players and outdoor rinks in winter.

The Red Star management team, meanwhile, is already turning its attention to find someone who can cover the hockey team’s losses.

After all, they’re manufacturing a little slice of sporting glory for China. Why should they bear that cost alone?

“The government should provide relevant and fair subsidies for the relevant matters, and I think they will,” Liao says. Building hockey in China, after all, is partly a “government mission,” she adds. “We’re not just stupid people with money who bet on this thing for nothing.”

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