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NHL looks to China to ‘expand the sport’

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When Andong Song started playing hockey in China at age 6, he wore figure skates on his feet and had to use the straight parts of short-track speedskating rinks for practice.

His father brought back equipment from his travels one piece at a time, and his family moved to Canada a few years later so he could pursue a career in the sport. Song, the first Chinese player selected in the NHL draft, envisions a day when that sort of cross-global exodus is no longer necessary for kids growing up in China.

That could be coming soon with the NHL looking at China as hockey’s next great frontier. With the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China is eager to step up its game and the league is intrigued by the potential of a new nontraditional market with 1.4 billion people that might take to hockey like it did basketball.

“It’s a place that hasn’t had that much of an opportunity to be introduced to what everybody acknowledges is a great game,” commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Because of the size of the market and the fact that lots of sports haven’t been developed there, it’s a good opportunity to expand the sport even further.”

This week, Bettman is expected to announce NHL preseason games in China between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, along with grassroots programs to build a hockey foundation where the NBA has laid one for decades. It’s the first big step toward the NHL making inroads in China, whether or not players participate in the 2018 Olympics in neighboring South Korea.

NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said showcasing the NHL, running clinics and getting more broadcast coverage all figure into the long-term strategy. Even though Russia’s expansive Kontinental Hockey League now has a team based in Beijing, NHL exhibition games – and potentially regular-season games as early as fall 2018 – will have a bigger impact.

“Even with the KHL there, they know it’s not the best league,” said Song, a Beijing native and sixth-round pick of the New York Islanders in 2015 who now plays for the Madison Capitols of the United States Hockey League. “They know it’s not the NHL.”

According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China only has 1,101 registered players and 154 indoor rinks. Despite having a quarter of China’s population, the U.S. has 543,239 players and 1,800 indoor rinks.

By October, 14 different NBA teams will have played 24 preseason games in greater China since 2004, so the NHL has some catching up to do. The Boston Bruins sent an envoy on a Chinese tour last summer that included players Matt Beleskey and David Pastrnak, and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis recently said his team could be next after hosting youth players from China in January.

“There will be about 200 new rinks being built in China and we would expect China being a very, very formidable force in the Olympics,” said Leonsis, who called China the next great hockey market. “And also we’ll see that China will be producing players and I would expect that we’ll have NHL players that were born and trained, just like we’ve seen in the NBA, and China will be able to bring players here.”

The NBA gained popularity in China in part due to Yao Ming, the first pick in the 2002 draft. The NHL is going into China hoping to develop homegrown stars. Chinese broadcaster and producer Longmou Li, who has worked the Stanley Cup Final and helped families move to North America for hockey, said 500 to 600 new families are joining the Beijing Hockey Association each year, which could mean churning out an NHL first-round pick every five to six years.

Song said because the sport is still in its infancy in China and centralized in the northeast and in big cities, keeping the best players there instead of seeing them leave for North America is the biggest challenge.

About 200 Chinese hockey families currently live in North America, Li said, and the return of those players, coupled with the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star’s presence and a commitment to skill development, will help the national team grow in preparation for the 2022 Olympics. With a broadcasting deal already in place to air four NHL games on state-owned China Central TV and 10-12 online through Tencent each week, his keys to the growth of Chinese hockey are players reaching the NHL and the national team competing at the top level of the world championships.

Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Keenan was recently tapped to take over Kunlun and oversee the men’s and women’s national teams, so the process is underway.

“If NHL can help China to get that, I think we can at least get 100 million fans from China,” Li said. “Because hockey is just so passionate a game, is so fast a game, it’s so easy to get people to get involved. But they will need to attract them to watch.”

Although being awarded the Olympics was impetus for the Chinese government to pour resources into hockey, it’s getting some help from the private sector in the form of Zhou Yunjie, the chairman of of metal can manufacturing company ORG Packaging. The goaltender-turned-billionaire is at the forefront of hockey’s growth in China through NHL partnerships and sponsorships.

“As long as (TV networks) in China broadcast many more games in China, it will attract more people to notice the NHL, especially the youth hockey player,” Zhou said through an interpreter. “Because there are many Chinese kids that have started learning hockey there, and there is a good population of the people that will develop hockey in China.”

When Chris Pronger famously plastered Justin Bieber into the boards during a celebrity game at NHL All-Star Weekend in January, not only was Zhou playing goal but an ORG Packaging patch was on players’ jerseys. Talking about spreading the “gospel” of hockey, Leonsis called Zhou “the greatest evangelist.”

Zhou can’t do it alone, and NHL integration in China is also connected to the 2022 Olympics. After NHL players participated in the past six Olympics, there’s pessimism about the league going to Pyeongchang next year. Discussions about Beijing will happen later.

By then, the league should know if the experiment is working.

“If we can get in on the ground floor, help them with that (and) bring our expertise,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “You can’t argue with the population or the economy, so if we’re able to do that it could be a great opportunity for us.”

 

Looking to make the leap: Zach Aston-Reese

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

With a number of departures from a roster that won back-to-back Stanley Cups, it’s imperative that the Pittsburgh Penguins get a push from some of their prospects in 2017-18.

One of the top candidates to earn a regular spot is forward Zach Aston-Reese, a 23-year-old who just wrapped up an impressive career at Northeastern University.

Aston-Reese signed with the Pens in March, hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow undrafted NCAA products Chris Kunitz and Conor Sheary.

In a twist, Kunitz is one of those departed players that Aston-Reese may help replace.

“He was a college free agent, too, and kind of a goal scorer his last couple years in college,” Aston-Reese said of Kunitz, per NHL.com. “Just made a career for himself playing with good guys and being able to put the puck in the back of the net.”

Aston-Reese scored 31 goals in 38 games for the Huskies last season, making him a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

But despite all the accolades, he knows he’s still just a prospect, with a lot left to learn, and a lot left to prove.

“Whether we start up top or down in Wilkes-Barre, I think it’s important to be in the same mindset that, you’re trying to get better every day you show up to the rink,” he said, per the Post-Gazette. “If we do get that opportunity, we need to have a good mindset, produce and do what they ask of us.”

Poll: Who will the Penguins miss the most?

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

After winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been forced into making some changes to their roster.

It’s only normal that championship teams won’t be able to bring all their players back, especially in a salary cap world.

This offseason, the Penguins lost Marc-Andre Fleury in the expansion draft and Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey, and Matt Cullen in free agency. Each one of those players played an important role in at least one of the two title runs.

Fleury may not have been between the pipes when the Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup in each of the last two seasons, but he played a crucial part in each victory. On top of playing 38 games during the regular season, he also compiled a 9-6 record with a 2.56 goals-against-average and a .924 save percentage during the 2017 postseason.

Without Fleury on the roster, the pressure will fall squarely on Matt Murray‘s shoulders. Murray may own two rings, but he has yet to go through the challenges of an 82-game season plus playoffs. New backup Antti Niemi probably won’t be capable of filling in as well as Fleury did.

One of the major reasons the Pens were able to go on two championship runs was because of the depth they had accumulated at center. Any team would love to have one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but Pittsburgh is fortunate enough to have both. The Penguins’ depth didn’t stop there. They also had Nick Bonino on their third line and Matt Cullen on their fourth, which is pretty impressive.

Both Bonino and Cullen will play in the Western Conference next year. Finding competent players to play on the third and fourth line isn’t as difficult as getting top line talent, but those two losses will probably hurt them pretty badly.

Bonino had 18 goals and 37 points during the 2016-17 regular season and he added a modest seven points in 21 games during the postseason before being ruled out with a lower-body injury. Last year, he put up less points in the regular season (29), but he had an impressive 18 points in 24 games during the playoffs. He was also capable of playing a solid two-way game.

Cullen, who signed with Minnesota yesterday, also found a way to contribute, despite playing a bottom-six role on such a deep team. The 40-year-old scored 32 and 31 points in his two years with the Penguins and he also added six and nine points during the playoff runs. He also won plenty of key faceoffs and played well without the puck.

Trevor Daley was unable to finish the 2016 playoffs because of an ankle injury, but he also played a vital role during Pittsburgh’s impressive accomplishment. Daley, who is now with the Red Wings, was able to hold down the fort while Kris Letang was out. He averaged over 20 minutes of ice time during the regular season and 19 more in the spring.

Ron Hainsey was a smart, underrated trade deadline acquisition by GM Jim Rutherford. The veteran stepped into the lineup and played 21 minutes per night for his new team. He also chipped in with eight points in 25 games. He got himself a nice contract with the Maple Leafs on July 1st.

Chris Kunitz had been a big contributor for the team, but his production fell off dramatically. After scoring 35 goals during the 2013-14 season, he added 17, 17 and nine during his last three years in Pittsburgh. It became pretty clear that he wasn’t able to play at the same level he had been in previous years, so it wasn’t surprising to see him go elsewhere (Tampa Bay) when free agency opened.

It’s your turn to vote. Make sure you make a selection in the poll below and feel free to leave your opinion in the comments section.

It’s Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT

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The Pittsburgh Penguins became the first team since the 1997-98 and 1998-99 Detroit Red Wings to repeat as Stanley Cup champions last season.

After a summer of painful (if necessary) losses, the Penguins now aim to become the first NHL team to “three-peat” since the New York Islanders rattled off a dizzying four consecutive championships from 1980-83.

Just yesterday, Matt Cullen became the latest omission from the Penguins’ mix, but he was far from the only noteworthy loss. Marc-Andre Fleury headlines a list of exits that also includes Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey.

Their additions have been a mix of small (Matt Hunwick) and polarizing (giving up a first-rounder for Ryan Reaves), so overall this team saw some minuses this summer.

That said, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the Penguins navigated the choppy waters of the postseason despite plenty of bruises, especially with Kris Letang out for the entire 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. One could argue that a healthy Letang cancels out most of the Penguins’ losses.

(You know, not that this franchise isn’t accustomed to seeing Letang, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin miss significant time almost every year.)

It’s been a remarkable run, as the Penguins have been on fire ever since Mike Sullivan took over. Phil Kessel‘s been a brilliant addition, even with the hot dog jokes and surprising trade rumors.

Matt Murray‘s also been a revelation, although the 2017-18 season presents an intriguing test for a goalie who has enjoyed a Ken Dryden-like start to his career. With “The Flower” out of town, more rests on Murray, a goalie who’s passed all of his tests with flying colors so far, but hasn’t ever carried a franchise netminder’s workload.

There’s a lot to like when it comes to the Penguins next season, who even with some tough losses, retain the vast majority of their key contributors. Will they run out of gas after two championship runs, not to mention some key players getting older? Can they continue to generate great results in a challenging Metropolitan Division?

PHT explores the defending champions’ burning questions today.

Draisaitl on signing with Oilers: ‘We have something really special’

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As a restricted free agent, Leon Draisaitl only had so much say regarding his future with the Edmonton Oilers, especially since teams rarely send offer sheets around in the NHL.

Even so, Draisaitl could have opted for a “bridge” deal; instead, he signed for the maximum of eight years for a whopping $68 million on Wednesday.

Some would probably grumble but understand if Draisaitl explained his rational by pointing at one of those big checks or at a calculator. Instead, the promising young forward explained that he believes that the Oilers have a bright future, and he wants to be a part of it.

In case you’re wondering, additional details have surfaced regarding the year-to-year breakdown of Draisaitl’s deal. TVA’s Renaud Lavoie also reports that Draisaitl has a no-movement clause, thus making it that much more likely that he’ll get his wish to stick with the Oilers:

Of course, with Draisaitl and Connor McDavid combining for a $21M cap hit beginning in 2018-19, the bigger question is not whether they will stay, but who the Oilers will manage to keep in the fold.

Still, that’s for GM Peter Chiarelli & Co. to decide. For Draisaitl, this is a great moment, and he might even be able to back up that big contract with big results on the ice.