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The man behind the push to bring the NHL to China

Chinese billionaire Zhou Yunjie has signed up as the NHL’s strategic partner in China, where the league is making a major new push.

Courtesy Zhou Yunjie

Zhou Yunjie is not the sort of person who needs to bow to other people very often.

He is a Chinese billionaire, a magnate of beer kegs and Red Bull tins who owns a vineyard in France, hobnobs with a Hungarian Olympic gold medalist fencer and gets into debates with his staff about how many factories he actually owns – they say 27, he says 29, spread across three countries.

But when it comes to slapping pucks, the kind of thing he once did with Justin Bieber, Mr. Zhou knows better than to put on airs as a Chinese person.

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"We have to confess that when it comes to hockey, the NHL is our teacher," he said. "And right now, we need to hire a very good teacher, so that we can learn how to get better faster."

The NHL is about to make a historic push into China, a market where it has lagged far behind other professional sports leagues. On Thursday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will take the stage in Beijing to formally announce a pair of exhibition games in China later this year. The NHL has plans to invest in youth training and wants to help build Chinese hockey leagues; other organizations, including Hockey Canada, have similarly become active suddenly in the world's most populous nation.

Read more: Gary Bettman says NHL open to Chinese investment as hockey tries to expand footprint

But what seems like an abrupt tack toward China has been years in the making, in part thanks to the prodding of Mr. Zhou, who began goaltending as an 11-year-old in Beijing in the 1970s, and is now signing a three-year deal to be the league's strategic partner in China.

It's a country that can today count only a few thousand hockey players – but stands ready, he believes, for astounding growth over the next decade.

"We can set our target at five million people playing hockey," Mr. Zhou said in an interview Wednesday at a fencing club in Beijing that, his staff proudly says, is the only one in China to include a cavernous wine cellar in its basement, stocked with hundreds of bottles of his own Sunshine Creek brand of sparkling brut.

Mr. Zhou – or Mr. Joe, as he is known to the players who have met him – has big plans. He is in negotiations for his own rink in Beijing, which could be used to build a new generation of hockey players, establish an NHL museum and host exhibition games. His company, metal-can-making giant ORG Packaging Co., will be the presenting partner of the NHL China Games 2017, a pair of matchups between the Lose Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks planned for this September in Beijing and Shanghai.

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Each of those games will be preceded by an intensive week of hockey activities; Mr. Zhou also wants to bring an NHL truck tour to China, with displays of league history.

"What I hope to do with the NHL is to jointly work on promoting the sport in China," he said.

It's an extraordinary set of ambitions for a man who in the 1970s was attending Beijing's Shichahai Sports School when a hockey coach saw him playing soccer and asked if he would be interested in strapping on skates.

Soon he was in net for the Beijing team in a league that, at the time, had teams from far western Xinjiang to the frigid northeast. Even the People's Liberation Army and a railway bureau in Inner Mongolia iced teams.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese people played hockey at the time, he estimated. Mr. Zhou himself played until he was 18, then went off to university.

Then hockey went dark, killed in part by a new national Olympics strategy that poured resources into sports in which China stood to amass medals, and left others to wither.

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Mr. Zhou, meanwhile, was building an empire on cans. In 1991, at the age of 30, he and his mother started bottling beverages and, in 1994, made their first set of cans, for winter melon juice. Two years later, they began production of cans for Red Bull, which became immensely popular, selling five billion drinks in China in 2014 alone.

Mr. Zhou became wealthy, accumulating vineyards in France and Australia, and homes around the world. Forbes now estimates his net worth at $1.1-billion (U.S.).

But hockey stuck with him from his days cheering childhood hero Bobby Orr, and five years ago he popped in on a Bruins game while in Boston.

It rekindled his interest in the game, and in 2013 he began talking to the NHL. He wanted to bring the league into China, rather than its broadcasts alone – which, he said, drew small numbers of confused viewers who complained that they couldn't keep track of the puck. Better, he figured, to let people first watch the game in person.

Conversations did not go well at first.

"I got the feeling when I was in the U.S. that they really didn't care about others – they only cared about doing well for their own teams," said Miao Zhenhua, director of the promotions department at Mr. Zhou's ORG.

"We can't only use the word 'fan' to describe Mr. Zhou. It's no exaggeration to say he was the one who pushed forward the NHL entry into the Chinese market."

The NHL argues that it has not had the luck of other leagues in China, like the National Basketball Association and the wave of Yao Ming fame it was able to ride.

But the NBA has pursued China for decades, first giving away broadcasting rights to China Central Television in 1987. Even professional golf has brought its champions to China for tournament play since 2005, when Tiger Woods came to Shanghai.

As for the NHL: "I don't think they've really made a major effort to develop the sport until now," said John Cappo, who has spent 30 years in Asia, and has held top executive roles at sports and entertainment companies IMG and AEG.

But golf isn't a bad example for Mr. Bettman and Mr. Zhou. "No one thought golf would be a sport that anyone would follow," Mr. Cappo said. Like hockey, it is expensive and requires specialized facilities. About one-million people in China now golf and, since 2014, the country has hosted its own domestic professional league, the PGA Tour China Series.

"Now that the middle class is emerging, they want their kids to learn other sports. And I think hockey could be one of them," Mr. Cappo said.

China is also on a winter-sport spree ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. By that time, the number of Chinese arenas could swell to 240, estimates Geoff Le Cren, the owner of Skate Pro International Co., the China and southeast Asia distributor for Bauer.

"That's a huge number," he said. Russia, by comparison, has 550.

So far, the number of Chinese players has not grown quickly. The sport has become the domain of the super rich, who pay as much as $20,000 a year for private coaching.

But Mr. Zhou, the billionaire, said a wave of young people are about to pick up sticks courtesy of Chinese governments, which are making participation in ice and snow activities mandatory ahead of the Winter Olympics.

With thousands of schools in northeast China, that could amount to millions of new hockey players, he hopes. China's powerful president, Xi Jinping, is behind the push: Mr. Xi himself skated as a child, Mr. Zhou said, after scrounging with his brothers to buy a single pair of skates.

Mr. Zhou himself hopes to help build new leagues to keep those kids trading slap shots; first at universities, and then in Chinese cities – perhaps six at first, to reflect the NHL's origins.

Boston Bruins left winger Matt Beleskey, who travelled to China last summer to participate in youth hockey clinics, said Mr. Zhou seems well positioned to make that happen.

"Obviously, he runs a massive distribution business. He's got the contacts. He's the man over there," Mr. Beleskey said. "You go places with Mr. Joe and people get things done for you. He's a great guy to have on our side."

Mr. Zhou became a Bruins sponsor last year.

For him, hockey's rise in China could be good for business: the more people play, the more they may drink Red Bull, whose cans his company still makes.

For now, though, he is enjoying the new profile he has won as hockey's top booster in a market the NHL suddenly wants to crack. In January, he suited up in goalie gear for the NHL All-Star Celebrity Shootout, and squared off against Justin Bieber.

"I didn't let any in," Mr. Zhou said. "If I were still his age, I think I would have played better."

With a report from Eric Duhatschek

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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