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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.”

 

The Buzzer: Sharks dominate at MSG; Leafs edge Kings

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Player of the Night: Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks

The Sharks netminder stood tall Monday night during a 4-1 win over the New York Rangers. Jones stopped 33 shots as San Jose won their fourth consecutive game. Logan Couture recorded two points, which included his 200th career NHL assist. He now has six goals and nine points in four games.

Highlight of the Night:

Lovely shorthanded finish here by Trevor Lewis to help the Los Angeles Kings cut the Toronto Maple Leafs lead to 3-2 late in their game:

MISC:

• Congrats to Tim Heed for scoring his first NHL goal.

• New York’s power play failed on all six opportunities.

• The Rangers have won only twice in eight home games this season.

Frederik Andersen stopped 36 shots and Patrick Marleau recorded his fourth of the year as the Maple Leafs edged the Kings 3-2.

• Marleau’s goal stood as the game-winner and was the 99th of his career, good for eighth all-time.

• A weird sequence in the first period saw Jonathan Quick take an elbow to the head and be briefly forced from the game due to a concussion spotter’s call. Oddly, it took several minutes for Quick to be removed from the game, and then he was only off the ice for whistle.

Factoid of the Night: 

Monday’s scores:

San Jose 4, New York Rangers 1

Toronto 3, Los Angeles 2

Ducks’ Patrick Eaves diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome

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Patrick Eaves has only played two games for the Anaheim Ducks this season, and the team updated his situation on Monday.

Eaves, who hasn’t played since Oct. 13, spent the weekend at a local hospital after being diagnosed with what medical personnel believe to be Guillain-Barré syndrome which, according to the Ducks, is “a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system.”

The Ducks say the 33-year-old Eaves was feeling weak last week and after seeing specialists, was admitted to the intensive care unit at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, California. Over the weekend he was stabilized and moved out of ICU. He’s expected to make a full recovery, though no timetable for a return has been given.

“I want to thank Dr. Robert Watkins Sr. and Dr. Danny Benmoshe for their early diagnosis of my condition, along with the proactive Ducks medical team,” Eaves said in a statement. “Thanks to them and the incredible nurses at Hoag Hospital, I’m on the road to recovery. I’ve received tremendous amount of support over the last few days, most importantly from my family, friends and teammates. I’m determined to fully overcome this and return to the ice as soon as possible.”

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website, Guillain-Barré syndrome can affect someone at any age and is diagnosed in “only about one person in 100,000.” It’s still unknown how the disease manifests in those affected. William “Refrigerator” Perry and Danny Wuerffel are among those who battled it.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Tale of 2 brothers: 1 victim, 1 rescuer in Vegas shooting

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Nicholas and Anthony Robone are about as close as two brothers can be.

They are the only two kids in their family, born and raised in Las Vegas. Nick and Tony share a passion for ice hockey, and as boys used their tape-wrapped hockey sticks to knock a puck around the street.

Tony followed Nick in becoming a defenseman, and joined him as a student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A year ago, they pooled their money to buy the three-bedroom house they share.

So it wasn’t unusual that they were together at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on Oct. 1 when a gunman opened fire on the crowd from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, striking Nick, 28, in the upper chest and forcing firefighter and paramedic Tony, 25, into the role of his big brother’s rescuer.

Nick was at the country music festival with a three-day pass his parents gave him for his September birthday. ”It was going to be a fun night to hang out,” he said.

Tony, with the Henderson County Fire Department, couldn’t join his brother the first two days, but arrived at the festival grounds at about 8:30 p.m. on the final night after attending the Vegas Golden Knights professional hockey game. The brothers were with a few friends in the middle of the main stage area.

County music singer Jason Aldean was just a few songs into his set when the popping sounds started after 10 p.m. and Nick felt a piercing pain in his left side. A bullet had entered his chest right above his heart and lung, and traveled down to his side muscle, missing organs but badly bruising the lung.

Tony treated Nick’s wound as round after round of gunfire rained down on the panicked crowd. In the end, 58 people died. Hundreds were injured in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Tony told a news conference two days after the shooting that he and their friend Billy Tufano, an emergency medical technician, helped get Nick to the east side of the stage where they hid behind a police car. They later continued farther east, and eventually got Nick into an ambulance.

Critically injured, Nick was in surgery for four hours, in intensive care at Sunrise Hospital for five days, and released after 10 days.

Three weeks after the shooting, Nick is home recovering. He gets around pretty well on his own, he said in a telephone interview last week. He’s expected to make a full recovery.

”There won’t be any real rehab to speak off,” he said. ”Just walk around a few times a day,” do some regular breathing exercises and eat a good diet.

Nick has credited quick attention by his brother and friends at the concert for saving his life. Tony ”NEVER left my side,” he said in a tweet.

Doctors have estimated it will be six to eight weeks before he can return to work, he said.

Nick said he’s received unconditional support from Topgolf, an entertainment property with a driving range and restaurants where he’s employed in marketing. He also is an assistant ice hockey coach at his alma mater, where the Rebels hockey team and its fans have rallied around him.

With the VegasStrong hashtag scrawled on signs throughout the City National Arena, the ”Skatin’ Rebels” won their home game 8-0 in Nick’s honor the Friday after the massacre. A few days later, he felt well enough to visit the team and promise, ”I’ll be back.”

”My brother is the toughest guy I know,” Tony said. ”And I think the amount of support from the community, from the hockey community, from the firefighter community, it just represents and reflects the kind of guy he is.”

The feeling is mutual. ”My brother is a really great guy,” Nick said.

Report: Wild’s Parise considering back surgery

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The Minnesota Wild host the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday, which could be the same day forward Zach Parise undergoes surgery, according to Michael Russo of The Athletic.

Per that report, Parise is contemplating back surgery that would sideline the 33-year-old forward — who still hasn’t played a game this season — for up to two months.

Parise missed the beginning of training camp with a back injury, but had started to skate with the team before suffering a setback and leaving the ice during a session last week. At the time, general manager Chuck Fletcher was hopeful that this setback was only a short-term issue.

“We’ll see what it means. I don’t want to speculate, but it would have been better if he could have finished the practice, but he didn’t, so we’ll see how he feels,” said Fletcher last week.

“I try not to get too up or down and things like that. You feel badly for Zach, he’s working hard and he’s in great shape, and hopefully this is just a short-term setback, if it even is a setback. We’ll find out more later on, but I’m sure it’s very frustrating for him.”

This also surfaced out of Minnesota this afternoon, following the initial report:

The Wild are about to begin a six-game home stand, which gets underway Tuesday when they host the Canucks.

With a 2-2-2 record through six games to begin the season, Minnesota has experienced a disastrous list of injuries so far. Not only has Parise not yet made his debut, but Charlie Coyle (right fibula fracture) and Nino Niederreiter are still listed on injured reserve, and Mikael Granlund hasn’t played since the season opener back on Oct. 5.

The news surrounding Granlund is certainly more positive. He skated again on Monday and coach Bruce Boudreau was hopeful that the 25-year-old winger, who had a breakout 2016-17 season, could be ready to go versus the Canucks.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.