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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.”

 

‘Hawks were ‘as close to brutal as you can get’ against Blues

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The Chicago Blackhawks have been relatively good this season, but head coach Joel Quenneville was far from impressed by his team’s performance in Wednesday night’s loss to the St. Louis Blues.

The Blackhawks found themselves down 1-0 after one period and 3-0 after two periods. To make matters even worse, they managed just eight shots on Blues goalie Jake Allen through 40 minutes.

They finally managed to score two quick power play goals late in the third period, but it was too little too late.

“That was a bad start and a bad middle,” Quenneville said after the game, per the Chicago Sun-Times. “That was as close to brutal as you can get. They played well and we were brutal.”

Yea, Quenneville wasn’t happy.

The possession chart from the game (via hockeystats.ca) gives us a pretty clear look at how everything unfolded during Wednesday’s game.

The Blues (dark blue) built up a pretty comfortable lead in possession until the ‘Hawks (light blue) turned it on late in the game. Where was that urgency in the first two periods?

After going 3-0-1 in their first four games of the season, Chicago has now dropped two of their last three contests.

They’ll have a chance to get back on the horse right away, but don’t expect it to be easy for them. They’ll host the Edmonton Oilers, who have struggled out of the gate, tonight. Still, stopping Connor McDavid won’t be easy.

They’ll conclude their three games in four nights stretch in Arizona on Saturday night. The ‘Hawks will then head to Vegas on Tuesday before playing back-to-back games against Nashville and Colorado on Friday and Saturday.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS:

PHT Morning Skate: Islanders make young cancer patient’s dream come true

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–ESPN’s latest power rankings look at each team’s biggest worries this season. The Maple Leafs are number one in the rankings, but they should be concerned that a youngster like Mitch Marner might regress during his sophomore season. (ESPN)

–Earlier this season, Lightning forward J.T. Brown raised a fist during the playing of the American anthem. Now, Brown says he won’t raise his first anymore, but he will get more involved in his community. (Tampa Bay Times)

–Happy belated birthday to Penguins winger Phil Kessel who turned 30 on October 2nd. Unfortunately for Phil, Pens TV caught him struggling to blow out his birthday candles. (BarDown)

–Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman came out with his weekly “31 Thoughts” column on Wednesday. He discussed the pressures of the NHL, the latest in the Matt Duchene saga, the Bruins wanting to re-sign Chara and much, much more. (Sportsnet.ca)

Will Butcher, Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier have grabbed a lot of the headlines in New Jersey this season, but allaboutthejersey.com believes that veteran Adam Henrique has been the most important player on the roster. Henrique wins faceoffs, he’s on the first power play unit, the first penalty-killing unit and he’s been productive. (allaboutthejersey.com)

–The Winnipeg Jets signed Steve Mason during the summer so that he could be their starting goaltender for the next two years. That hasn’t exactly worked out. Connor Hellebuyck has been the better of the two goalies and it’s time to make him the starter. (The Score)

–The Mexican Hockey League unveiled their logos and uniforms. They’re pretty unique to say the least. That Olmec Stone Heads logo is…something! (sportslogos.net)

–Now that we’re two weeks into Golden Knights’ inaugural season in the NHL, we know exactly what hockey in Vegas looks like. “With no laws against open containers, it was a tailgate atmosphere in a downtown setting. Instead of fans holding cans of light beers and sitting in patio chairs next to cars in a parking lot, they were on city benches holding half-priced margaritas and towers of frozen alcohol. If you followed the path of a beanbag being tossed during a game of cornhole, your eye would catch an advertisement for a Lady Gaga show.” Sounds like fun! (Vice Sports)

–Ken Holland was a big reason for Detroit’s run of 25 consecutive playoff appearances, but it sounds like a lot of Red Wings fans think he’s become the problem. (metrotimes.com)

–Brandon Bloom, who is an eight-year-old boy suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, got to hit the ice with the New York Islanders. What an experience for the youngster. “When they brought it to our attention, I think everybody was excited about it,” said Islanders forward Josh Bailey. “I had a chance to meet the Bloom family a while ago. They’re really quality people and they’re going through a tough time.” Great work by the Isles and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. (NHL.com)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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The Buzzer: Kempe, Schwartz record hat tricks; Leafs honor Gord Downie

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Players of the night: Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues / Adrian Kempe, Los Angeles Kings

The Blues forward tallied his third career hat trick during a 5-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. Schwartz scored the game’s first two goals before completing his hat trick with a late empty-net goal to stave off a Chicago comeback.

Wednesday’s feat for Schwartz came three years to the day of his first career three-goal game.

Kempe, meanwhile, tallied his first NHL hat trick and finished with four points during LA’s 5-1 rout of the Montreal Canadiens. Two of his three goals were assisted by Mike Cammalleri, who also finished the night with four points.

Highlight of the night:

Eddie Olczyk returned to the NBC broadcast booth as he continues his battle against colon cancer. Olczyk, along with Doc Emrick, called the Blues-Blackhawks game from Scottrade Center Wednesday night.

MISC:

Auston Matthews recorded the 20th multi-point game of his career. He now has six goals and 10 points on the season.

Patrick Marleau became the 18th NHL player to reach the 1,500-game mark.

Jake Allen kept his shutout bid alive with this great stick save on Patrick Kane late:

-The Kings are off their best start in franchise history at 5-0-1. They’ve allowed only 10 goals against through six games.

Jeff Carter left the game in the first period and did not return after tangling with Jeff Petry. Afterward, Kings head coach John Stevens said the forward will miss some time.

-Finally, The Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie passed away from cancer at age 53 on Wednesday. The Maple Leafs paid tribute before their game against the Red Wings.

Factoid of the night:

Scores:

Maple Leafs 6, Red Wings 3

Blues 5, Blackhawks 2

Kings 5, Canadiens 1

Cammalleri, Kempe power Kings over Canadiens

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Adrian Kempe recorded his first career NHL hat trick and Mike Cammalleri added two goals as the Los Angeles Kings beat the Montreal Canadiens 5-1.

After Paul Byron opened the scoring for Montreal midway through the first period, the Kings responded with five unanswered goals to hand the Habs their sixth straight defeat.

Cammalleri, who inked a one-year deal over the summer to return to the Kings, had a hand in four of LA’s five goals. He started the scoring for the Kings in the first period by celebrating the Dodgers’ playoff run with his own special kind of baseball swing.

Kempe, who finished with four points as well, scored his three goals over a span of 10:50 in the third period to help the Kings to their best start in franchise history (5-0-1).

LA remains the only NHL team yet to lose in regulation this season.

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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.