The Cable

You’ll Never Guess Which Country Is Trying to Get Good at Hockey

In an effort to strengthen its 2022 Winter Olympic bid, China is trying to get good at hockey.

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During a blink-and-you-miss it moment of Saturday night’s wickedly entertaining Stanley Cup hockey game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Tampa Bay Lightning, announcer Mike “Doc” Emrick rolled out a curious clip: the Chinese call of a Lightning goal.

Here’s the video.

You’d expect foreign language calls in French, German, Russian, or any Nordic language, all spoken in countries mad about the sport (it’s the fourth most popular professional league here in the United States).

But in a country where the NBA is the dominant American sports league? Where few play hockey? That struck me as odd.

As it turns out, China is trying to make hockey a thing.

On Tuesday, Beijing formally rolled out its bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which it hopes to center in and around the remote Yanshan mountain range, a region that typically gets only modest amounts of snow. In the meantime, the Chinese government has been working quietly with some NHL teams to grow the game. Beijing not only wants a better hockey team, they also want to be competitive with world powers like Canada, the United States, and Russia.

This is a tall task for a country that only has seven years to develop the sport. The International Ice Hockey Federation estimates only 610 people, out of a population of 1.3 billion, currently play the game, and its men’s team is currently ranked 39th in the world. But as the gold-medal winning Chinese women’s gymnastic team proved during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Chinese government is pretty good at getting their athletes competitive in a sport relatively quickly.

NHL teams, for their part, see a huge potential audience. Last year, it struck a deal to have its games broadcast on China’s CCTV. That’s where the Chinese-language clip played Saturday night came from.

Teams like the New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs are engaged in programs to build the sport there. The Islanders have the Charles B. Wang Ice Hockey Project Hope, named for their former owner, Charles Wang, who was born in China. It hosts coaching clinics, provides equipment, and builds rinks in China. The club has also hosted teams from two Chinese cities, Qiqihar and Harbin, for a tournament in New York and held a portion of their training camp there in 2010.

But the team best poised to break into the Chinese market might be the Maple Leafs. That’s because they’re owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, a company that also owns the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. A spokesman for the company told FP that the Leafs are using Chinese connections the Raptors already have to make inroads in China. It is considering playing exhibition games there and reports indicate that team officials have traveled to China to talk about how to spread the game.

And China does have hockey infrastructure, even if its meager. Chinese teams compete in Asia League Ice Hockey, along with clubs from Russia, Japan, and South Korea. The league was created in 2003 with the specific purpose of growing the game in South Asia.

So world hockey powers, beware: China is trying to get good at hockey. And if all goes to plan, they’ll be gunning for you in 2022.

Photo credit: Ilgan Sports

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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