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NHL hopes to make inroads in China with preseason games

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SHANGHAI (AP) As the Vancouver Canucks held their first practice in Shanghai before their exhibition game with the Los Angeles Kings, a dense fog settled over the ice. The humidity in the arena was high and the players could barely see the puck.

Large dehumidifiers were rolled in and the mist eventually cleared, but the NHL has perhaps a bigger visibility problem in China – a country with little tradition of winter sports, hockey included. The league is hoping to turn that around with a major push in the country, beginning with its first two preseason games between the Canucks and Kings in Shanghai and Beijing this week.

The timing couldn’t be better for the NHL. With Beijing set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the government is putting a massive emphasis on developing winter sports. Hockey training programs and youth leagues are expanding across China, and the nation’s first professional team, the Kunlan Red Star, plays in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

With interest on the rise, the NHL believes it now has an opportunity to crack a market that has traditionally been more fixated on basketball and soccer.

“You don’t quite know what to expect the first time the game is coming here, but I’ve always believed that hockey is a game you need to see live,” Los Angeles Kings coach John Stevens said after Wednesday’s practice. “And once you see it live, you become hooked as a fan.”

A glance at the numbers shows just how far the NHL has to go. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China has just 1,101 registered players, compared with nearly 556,000 in the U.S. and more than 631,000 in Canada.

And the fan base in a nation of more than 1.2 billion people is still in its infancy. On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, the NHL has just 47,000 followers, some of whom are obviously new to the sport. (One posted a question about the temperature of the arena and what was suitable to wear to the game.) The NBA, which hosted its first preseason exhibition games in China in 2004, boasts more than 33 million followers on Weibo.

“We’re learning a lot about how to market here and we’re learning a lot about how tickets are sold,” says David Proper, the NHL’s executive vice president of media and international strategy. “We’re just viewing this as Year 1 of a multi-year project and in Year 1 we may not knock it out of the park . but we can still build over time.”

Media exposure certainly helps. State broadcaster CCTV now televises five games per week to Chinese audiences and the Internet giant Tencent streams 14 games per week on its digital platforms, including the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The NHL also has an influential partner on the ground in Zhou Yunjie, the billionaire founder of a Chinese drinks packaging company who has devoted significant time and resources to building the game he fell in love with as a youth in Beijing. Zhou’s company, ORG Packaging, is the presenting partner for this week’s exhibition games.

“Hockey was actually quite common in northern China back in the ’60s and ’70s, so there is a foundation among the kids in those areas,” Zhou told The Associated Press at his company’s newly opened hockey training base in a Beijing suburb, which includes a fully stocked gym, physical therapy room and a hotel for players attending training camps.

Zhou said China’s hockey revival should focus on both universities and a professional league, using the North American, northern European and Russian systems as models.

“It will take time before ice hockey really becomes like a religion with young people as it is in the West,” he said. “But ice hockey will definitely catch on with lots of kids.”

One thing that will certainly help is developing a home-grown star similar to Yao Ming in basketball and Li Na in tennis. There are promising signs on this front, too.

Song Andong became the first China-born player to be drafted in the NHL two years ago, selected by the New York Islanders. The 20-year-old Song has committed to play at Cornell this season.

On Monday, the Vancouver Canucks signed 21-year-old Sun Zehao to an amateur tryout contract to serve as the team’s third goaltender for the China preseason games.

“He’s working with our goalie coach,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “He liked how quick (Sun) was, how competitive he was. . I just think it’s a great experience for him.”

The NHL should also get a boost in China as excitement builds for the 2022 Olympics. The league angered its players by deciding not to interrupt its season to allow them to take part in the 2018 Games in South Korea in February. That stance may change for 2022 in the much larger Chinese market.

To some, skipping the Pyeongchang Olympics is a missed opportunity to gain a bigger foothold in China.

“With 2022 coming up, winter sports are taking the leading focus of all sports in China right now – more so than football,” said Mark Dreyer, founder of the China Sports Insider website. “They’ll be promoting the Korea Olympics more than ever before.”

For now, the league is focused on taking its first baby steps in China, giving spectators in Shanghai and Beijing a good show.

“It’s going to be pretty cool, especially for people who have never really experienced it before,” Kings forward Tanner Pearson said. “It’s going to hopefully start something good here.”

 

The Buzzer: Pacioretty continues hot streak

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Players of the Night:

Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens: Here’s a name you haven’t seen often in these parts this season. But Pacioretty had two goals tonight, the opener for the Canadiens and the game-winner with 1:18 left in the third period to give the Canadiens a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals. He also added an assist on Montreal’s other goal. Truth be told, Pacioretty has been sizzling lately with six goals and an assist in his past six games.

John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks: Gibson had a quiet night for the most part until the third period, but he was stellar when called upon and made 23 saves, including a second-period beauty (which you will see below) to help his team to a 2-1 win against the Los Angeles Kings.

Highlights of the Night:

James Neal had all the moves to help the Vegas Golden Knights secure a point on the road in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers.

John Gibson got just enough on this puck to redirect it off the post and out for quite the save:

Factoid of the Night:

MISC:

Scores:

Panthers 4, Golden Knights 3 (OT)

Canadiens 3, Capitals 2

Ducks 2, Kings 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Henrique, Kesler too much for Quick, Kings in 2-1 Ducks win

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Jonathan Quick did all he could.

The posts behind him helped on a couple occasions, but Quick was everything the Los Angeles Kings needed to break out of their five-game losing streak, which they entered Friday wearing like a ball and chain.

But while Quick was solid in the crease, making 29 saves, the men in front of him couldn’t replicate their goalie’s performance in a 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks.

The Kings have now lost six straight and just two of their past 10 and are tied with four teams, including the Ducks, who sit on 53 points and just outside the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

The Ducks-Kings rivalry has become quite the grind ’em out slugfest over time, and despite their recent downward spiral, the Kings weren’t going to roll over and die when the puck dropped, even if they played 24 hours earlier.

This rivalry doesn’t allow for one team to not show up, despite whatever mitigating circumstances may be available.

And neither team was giving the other any allowances, evidenced by a 0-0 scoreline after 40 minutes.

The Ducks struck first in the third frame as Adam Henrique finally willed a puck behind Quick, who had puzzled Anaheim’s offense for 42 minutes and change.

Henrique’s individual effort on the goal began a few seconds earlier as he won a foot race to the puck to get it into the Ducks’ zone, dove to make sure it stayed there and they got up and went to the net, where he picked up a loose puck that and put it in the back of the net for a 1-0 lead at the 17:55 mark.

That lead was shortlived, however.

The Kings struck back two-and-a-half minutes later as some extended offensive zone time by the Kings resulted in Alex Iafallo flicking a puck up and over John Gibson off a rebound to ruin his shutout bid at 4:48.

The Ducks would get the final say.

Jakob Silfverberg‘s excellent forecheck kept the Kings from clearing the puck out of their zone.

The puck found its way to the point, where Francois Beauchemin unleashed a high point shot that was redirected down and under Quick by Ryan Kesler for the eventual game-winner.

Gibson’s night may have been a little quieter than his counterpart 200-feet away, but he was on point when he needed to be, making 23 of 24 saves, including getting just enough on Iafallo’s second-period shot to steer it off the post and out to keep the game 0-0 at that point.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Los Angeles Kings vs Anaheim Ducks

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Los Angeles Kings

Adrian KempeAnze KopitarDustin Brown

Tanner PearsonTrevor LewisTyler Toffoli

Alex IafalloNick ShoreMarian Gaborik

Kyle CliffordTorrey MitchellAndy Andreoff

Derek ForbortDrew Doughty

Jake MuzzinAlec Martinez

Kevin Gravel– Christian Folin

Starting Goalie: Darcy Kuemper

NHL on NBCSN: Kings look to end losing streak vs. Ducks

Anaheim Ducks

Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry

Andrew CoglianoRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

Chris WagnerAntoine VermetteJ.T. Brown

Cam FowlerKevin Bieksa

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson

Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour

Starting Goalie: John Gibson

Red Fisher, as told by those who knew him

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Red Fisher is a mythical name in sports journalism.

Fisher’s death on Friday at 91 sent shockwaves through the National Hockey League community, and stories upon stories — snippets of Fisher and his life — began circulation around the Internet, many on Twitter by those who worked alongside him and those who had the pleasure to speak with the man.

Fisher’s life will be immortalized in print in the coming days. Michael Farber wrote this beautifully done piece for the Montreal Gazette already today. A must-read.

Here’s what his contemporary’s are saying, those that revere him and the people who Fisher made an impact on in so many ways: